Shifting Focus

I will never forget the opening words of my college drawing instructor. “Anyone can draw. What I hope to teach you is how to see.” Perception is something we often take for granted, yet it is pivotal to our everyday lives. When it comes to the arts a picture is only worth a thousand words if there are at least a thousand words that can be said about it. There must be a context into which it is seated. Out of that context, there must be a point of focus for our perception to work at all.

To help understand what I mean by this let’s take a moment and understand how the human eye works when it focuses on something in our field of vision. Innately, the eye focuses in on one thing with detail, forcing the rest into peripheral vision. For example, when I look at the cup of collected pens and pencils on my desk I see clearly one pencil and all the rest are suggestive images that I interpret as being there, but I don’t focus on them. If I look at the pen beside the pencil, it becomes the center of focus and the pencil becomes a suggestive object in my peripheral vision.

So why do I choose to see the pencil and not the pen? There is no detailed explanation for that which will cover every individual. You might have seen the pen first. What we both have in common was that we saw something of importance, something we chose to focus our attention on. As a rule of thumb you might say that in order to see something we must chose to not see something else; at least clearly.

What does this have to do with art? When the artist sits down to a composition they take on the role of human eye and choose a point of focus for the viewer. They must show the viewer what is important. What are we looking at?  Why are we looking?  What the artist chooses to show us and why is an ethical question in its own right but I feel that art is often misrepresented because the viewers are unclear about what it is they are supposed to see. Too much photo-realism and fancy digital tricks can cheat us of the necessary to see. By choosing to look at everything, we see nothing.

This is more than just a discussion of techniques used. It is also a fundamental part of making true art. Let me give you an example; recently I’ve come across a form of documentation called “Photovoice.” Essentially a Photovoice project allows an individual to show a researcher, or a broader audience, a literal snapshot of something experienced similar to photojournalism. The most pointed example I can recall were images shown by a group of individuals who lived their lives with the help of a wheelchair. Through their eyes we were granted an everyday view of people’s inconsiderate actions toward those who live their lives by a different set of rules, not by choice but by circumstance.

The Photovoice images changed our point of view. However in the Photovoice documents there was a written piece that gave context to the images and allowed us to focus in. But if we do not want to or cannot include the written context, then it must be added by the artist.

Here we come back to the point of focus and the periphery. The context is there, but it is not as clear as what we are focusing on. Artists must learn what part of an image tells the story and focus on that. When an artist chooses to focus on something they turn it from an object into a subject, like an author choosing a narrator or character to follow through the story. This character is important because they will be the gateway through which the viewer enters the scene. A worn shoe filled with holes can be filled with as much character as Da Vinci’s sketches of Italian commoners as long as there is an empathetic connection between two world-weary souls. (Or maybe soles.) What does it have to say? What did the artist hear or see? The subject of the piece had to reveal it to them first.

The entry point to a piece of art, therefore, is limited only to the artist’s ability to see and then to help the viewer focus on the subject of the piece. The subject is the focal point, the character at the start through which the image reveals its story. Without that, a viewer is lost on the other side with no gateway to let them in to a revelation of overlooked value. The subject might be one character or it might be many. It all depends on the artist.