When I was a kid our little burg had footpaths. One path led to town, another down to Aunt Alice's house, another through the fields to Ms. Inez who gave guitar lessons. They were as communal as highways and even though some went right through neighbors' yards, nobody made a fuss. Everybody knew the paths and most folks followed them.
Nature abounds with subjects worth painting, but if we jam too much stuff into a painting willy nilly, our viewers won't know where to look. It's like throwing them into the wilderness with no way out. But just as a composer of music guides what we hear,note by note and chord by chord, painters can guide how the viewer sees by creating visual paths. And these paths can enrich a painting, helping sustain the viewers' attention.
Visual paths can be planned ahead of time, worked in during the painting process, added at the finish or a combination of these. They happen when the artist finds ways to keep everything connected so that the viewer's eye will move from one area to another.
Thoughout our history of painting, artists have experimented with methods for creating visual paths. A few have become classic, similar to the etude, sonato or fugue in music. One of these classic path forms is the S path in which visual movement gets connected in the shape of an S or a Z which can be like a reversed S.
Clyde Aspevig , who is especially adroit at applying visual paths, has used the S formation in his oil painting "Absaroka Storm".
The technique he uses in this painting is the arrangement of passages of light. From the brightness of the sky through the sunlight on the hills to the sunlit grasses, we can find images connected together in an S pattern.
The triangle is one of the earliest and most familiar of the classic visual paths. Look how Kevin MacPherson uses it. The seated man leads to the shape behind him which leads to the seated woman, then back to the man--the triangular path. He makes this happen by the way he places the images.
Carolyn Anderson uses the triangle a little differently. In fact, the more we look at Anderson's painting, the more triangular paths we can find. Begin with the guy's head, move to the front foot of the nearest horse, then to the head of the other horse, then back to the guy. Now take a closer look and see how many more you can find.
It's a matter of composing. We select the subjects and place them within the picture plane so that select points occur in a triangular formation. Portrait painters depend heavily on the triangular path. They often try to place the head and the hands so that a triangle is suggested. John Singer Sargent depended heavily on the triangle. See how many trianglar paths you can find in his "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." I see at least six. How many do you see?
Another of the classic visual path formations is the C which is seen in a number of positions--reversed, curved from the bottom like a U or curved from the top like an upside-down U. Here are two more examples by Aspevig.
In "Aspen Interior" on the left, he's used the U formation (or a C on its back) and in "Selway River Wilderness" on the right, we can detect both a C and a Z. Artists often combine pathway patterns.
The other classic pattern is the O where the movement is either clockwise or counter clockwise. Edward Hopper does this in "Sunday". As in most of Hopper's isolated figures, our eye movement goes to the image like a bull's eye, then circles around it.
Try one of these classic visual paths in your next painting and see if you don't find it to be a fun and rewarding adventure.