Bear with me if I seem to be going off on a tangent here and run a little long this time, but I’d like to share with you a few thoughts that have been influencing my work recently.
Many years ago I learned that, when writing a story, an author is wise to ensure that everything that happens is experienced and understood from the point of view (POV) of a single character. We “hear” what that character is thinking, see what he’s seeing, feel what he’s feeling, and react as his experience and personality dictate. He may lie or misinterpret something, but the reader should discover that only by the contrast provided by other circumstances in the story, not by being told by an unconnected narrator. If we are suddenly told something that the point-of-view character can’t have any way of knowing, our credulity is shaken. We no longer trust that the story is really about the POV character, but we perceive that it is being manipulated by some omniscient outside force instead.
If, on the other hand, we recognize an omniscient narrator from the beginning, we trust the narrator to know all, and we willingly suspend our disbelief in the tale. But the story becomes less personal because it doesn’t affect the narrator personally. It may still be a good story, but it probably won’t be as powerful as if we read the story through the perspective of a character with whom we could more readily identify.
I’ve begun to look at painting in the same way, that it can be “omniscient,” a story depicted with broad strokes or evenly distributed detail. However, I’ve begun to recognize that its familiar and general perspective probably won’t have the same impact as one painted from a limited perspective, from a single point of view, especially if it’s quite different from the viewer’s normal perspective.
But if it’s painted from a limited perspective, who is the POV character—a man on the street, a child gazing from a window, a bird soaring amid the clouds, or a swimmer viewing the world from water level?
Most often, the POV character is the artist himself, with perspective drawn from his (and probably the viewer’s) eye level but limited by the artist’s immediate interests and circumstances. The scene is perceived and depicted through the artist’s consciousness and brush. Perhaps this could be considered a kind of omniscience. But it doesn’t have to be as expansive and uncontrolled as that. The artist’s own voice may be “heard,” or more accurately seen, in his or her choices of what will be emphasized or deemphasized.
Or like a skilled writer, the artist may paint as though through someone else’s eyes. Many children’s book illustrations depict the world through the eyes of a child or a small animal, with the relative size of plants, furniture, and other elements proportionately enlarged or exaggerated to help the viewer perceive the world from an unusual perspective. (Think of illustrations for classics like Alice in Wonderland; or more recent stories such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; or A Bug’s Life.)
I’ve begun exploring the idea that a composition can reflect the concept, vision, interests, and perspective of one specific character’s POV, that it can tell us something about that character and how he or she is experiencing the scene.
A child in a window might be watching for enlightenment or entertainment or companionship, or possibly daydreaming and imagining fantasy in place of fact. An adult would be more likely to see the world in terms of job responsibilities or its effect on his or her comfort or convenience. On the other hand, a bird would be watchful for prey and predators.
All of the answers to these questions both inform and express the painting’s “concept,” the story or point that the artist is trying to get across to the viewer. The POV character may not even appear within the composition.
The problem with including the POV character within the composition is that the perspective cannot be drawn completely from that character’s perspective, since the viewer is, by necessity, positioned differently. This problem can be overcome by using a dual POV. By showing the experiential POV character within the composition, the viewer is not left wondering but is given a specific POV character with which to identify. We interpret what we see as the experiential POV character might. Meanwhile, the focal POV is assigned to the artist or viewer, as though we were in partnership with the character we see while viewing the scene from our own spatial perspective.
As an exercise, I decided to create a series of studies to play with different points of view of the same general subject. The series title, “Direction,” refers not only to the changes of POV but to the subject matter itself.
“Direction 1 – Dilemma” is painted from a POV seemingly unrelated to the subject matter depicted in the other studies. Yet the concept was taken from the same conceptual set-up—that of a conductor tapping time and how it might be perceived from a small animal’s low perspective.
“Direction 2 – “A Round” is another play on words, giving the viewer the opportunity to consider connotations of the term and how various uses of it relate to the subject.
“Direction 3 – Limelight” was an exploration of unusual directional lighting effects on the conductor, as seen from the POV of a singer.
Limited POV might not be necessary or advisable in every situation or for every painting, but it’s certainly a concept worth exploring further and taking advantage of when appropriate.