When watching a film or listening to music there is a linear way these works of art unfold to our eye or ear. A movie and a music performance both take a fixed amount of time to absorb from start to finish. While viewing a painting we might not be aware of a similar linear process that’s involved. I’ve heard through museum researchers that the average time a person looks at a painting is 3 seconds. It is possible (and probably the norm) to take in a lot of visual stimuli all at once whether viewing a painting or just being in every day life. Obviously there is no fixed amount of time to view a painting, however I have found that if I slow down the viewing process while taking in a painting, my eyes seem to move through the piece like they’re on a road trip.

I spent some time investigating this phenomenon and found that I tend to view a painting starting on the left side and working my way across towards the right. I wonder if this is related to the fact that as an American I read from left to right. Perhaps those in other countries whose language is read from right to left might find the reverse is true. At any rate, paintings are their most inviting when there is some “entrance” on the left side of the painting. This could be anything that creates a diagonal movement into the work. It could be a light ray, a path, a tree branch, a figure, a brushstroke, anything that has an angle. If, however, there is some shape or form on the far left that is completely vertical, running up and down along the left side of the painting, then it can create a visual barrier. Without some sort of inviting angle, the viewer might not be compelled to look at the painting for more than a quick glance.

After some practice of viewing paintings in slow motion I have found even more surprising discoveries. Once the eye gains entrance on the left, it will happily move towards something bright colored, or something with high contrast that contains a light value (like white) next to a dark value (like black). This just scratches the surface of the visual tendencies I’ve found. If anyone is interested perhaps I’ll write more in my next blog. In conclusion, I have found that the more the eye can travel on a journey through the painting, the longer the viewing experience, and the more potential for creating a fulfilling visual and aesthetic experience.

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.