Where does your eye go?

So…where does your eye go?

That’s a question I’ve loved asking people as we view artwork together.

I love it because it begins to open us up to the idea that there may be a deeper experience awaiting when looking at a painting. That without any awareness on our part, a piece we’re viewing may be subtly guiding our eye intentionally.

An interesting side of composition involves the deliberate leading of the viewer’s eye. It’s not something I was every really “taught”, but since realizing that it exists, it’s added a lot to my enjoyment of good paintings and drawings. 

 I think it’ll do the same for you. But the first step is to study what attracts our attention and what gets it to move in a picture.

A Power of Attraction

Our eye is always searching…in a sense, it’s hungry.  We can notice how it works when leafing through the pages of a book, searches a room for misplaced keys, or recognizes a familiar person in a crowded public space. Our attention is drawn and engaged before we know it. For our purposes now,  we’ll simply call a this a “power of attraction”.

For paintings a “power of attraction” is anything within a picture’s composition that can attract your eye. We already know that a bright color in a drab setting or a human figure in a landscape can become a center of attention…what a lot of people call a “focal point”.But let’s consider what else an artist might use to move your attention in a more subtle way. Just for starters it could be any of the following…

-an open window or doorway in a background

-a contrast of light or dark, such as a highlight on a dark shape

-a color, by it’s strength or by contrast

-a contrast of objects…something that differs from others within it’s setting

-a figure or animal

-a sharp edge surrounded by softer edges

-any point/mark that has “power” due to it’s placement, especially nearer to an edge of the painting

Whatever it might be, it will possess a visual magnetism that makes itself known to you subconsciously. And importantly, not all objects have equal power of attraction.

As I gradually became used to this, it became very interesting to look at a picture merely only to see how the artist would draw my attention from one point to another. One specific moment  I learned a strange truth…that the central and dominant THING in a painting was not the main subject but an essentially abstract shape placed in the full light, with the artist in the self-portrait playing a slightly secondary role.  I found that reasoning to be fascinating.

And the artist?

Rembrandt Van Rijn

Why Study Rembrandt?

Though there are countless examples in traditional art we can study, I found that Rembrandt, and especially his drawings, are the ideal place to begin seeing this business in action.  Often his seemingly modest & commonplace themes become excellent lessons in leading the eye.

As an introduction to the concept for us to try together, this pen drawing is a fine example. I recommend that you enjoy a few moments with it before proceeding. Just pause and ask yourself where your eye wants to go as you examine it.

Rembrandt’s pen and ink drawings have a variety of “attraction” points that reveal themselves with a bit of looking.  The drawings were often created on ramblings in his town and surrounding countryside. This was not an extraordinary sight in Rembrandt’s day, perhaps the same as an everyday home would appear in our own neighborhood. These drawings represent his everyday experience, just as we also have our own familiar features of our time.  He was an eager observer, and exercised his gifts of observation and interpretation continually.

In this example, you may have noticed that your eye moved from part to part, resting here and there, and connecting one spot in the drawing to another.

A focal point isn’t enough

Having a point of interest that dominates the picture (a focal point) isn’t really the same as creating a series of connections that can lead a viewer through a picture. The reason is because a single focal point’s value is mostly only interesting as an object. The alternative we see with the Rembrandt drawing, a designed picture suggesting a discernible pathway, is a series of small discoveries that gives our mind an incentive to engage. Ideally, one is led to travel through the picture rather than looking at the picture.

Below is a breakdown of what I get from my own study of this beautiful drawing. I’ve found that the various things that attract my eye have differing strengths, but that with one thought a pattern can arise. But that’s just my interpretation. Where does YOUR eye lead you?

While I admit my diagram is subjective, I hope you agree that this is a dimension of picture enjoyment that, for an artist, is a valuable way to unify a composition.  Rembrandt’s drawn works (for me) are a particularly enjoyable source for seeing this in action.  If you’d like to dig deeper, I suggest looking at the library for books on Rembrandt’s drawings, or finding the old Dover publications of “Drawings of Rembrandt” (volume II is my favorite) as a starter.

If you want to really get a handle on composition, it’s a fascinating dimension.

Thoughts on Rembrandt’s Drawing “Christ Walking on the Water”

As we wade into this topic, you should know that I love Rembrandt’s drawings and look at them often…for both pleasure and for learning purposes. You should also know that I’m not a Rembrandt scholar.  I’m simply an artist eager to look at Rembrandt drawings to learn about composition…and whatever else great painters such as Rembrandt might have used to put their pictures together.

The Miracle on the Water

The drawing we’re looking at here is one of many Rembrandt drew around New Testament Biblical accounts.  In this case, the telling of Christ’s miracle of walking on the water, and specifically the Gospel of  Matthew account, which is the only one to mention Peter’s attempt to walk on the water himself. For those interested or unfamiliar, you can read the  biblical accounts here.

Rembrandt’s purpose in making the drawing was likely to work out how he might present the story visually in a painting.  Whether he intended this drawing to be viewed by the public or drew it as a private expedition, I can’t say…the scholars might know. But either way, it’s likely a compositional drawing…concerned with deciding on the viewer’s (that’s us) point of view, choosing the characters involved, and pinning down the precise point of action to be depicted.


Rembrandt’s “Christ Walking on the Water”  1638,  from the British Museum

It’s such a curious drawing… delicate and refined in some portions and  heavier in line and rougher in effect in others. Compare the refinement of the figures of Christ and Peter to the boxier character climbing out of the boat. You can easily imagine that his legs, simply drawn, are an afterthought and his figure originally ended at the railing of the boat as his smaller companions does.  That difference contributes to my idea that it was a working sketch, with choices and changes evolving along the way.

 An organized sketch 

Though sketch like, the  drawing is a clearly organized arrangement. You can always look to Rembrandt for wonderful lessons in organization and leading the eye. There’s a sweep from Christ’s figure on the left to the boat’s hull and back, which provides a sort of rocking feeling that is appropriate to the conditions of the sea. But I also find that after we step inside the drawing, there’s a particular path our attention wants to follow. As with many Rembrandt drawings, this is arranged deliberately.

Here’s a  diagram of the triangular relationship that’s at the heart of the drawing. Thoughtfully considered, one will notice a sequential arrangement of not only the actions but the intentions of the characters involved.

Triangular relationship of key actions 

As the Gospel story indicates, only Peter asked the he might leave the boat. So what is interesting is how the characters are illustrating, and I’d say animating,  an entire sequence of action.

A sequential animation?

Due to placement, Christ’s figure attracts our attention from the start, and we easily follow His arm to poor, foundering Peter, angled so powerfully in Jesus’ direction.  From there, our attention most easily moves up and to the third corner of the triangle with the boldly drawn (and unidentifiable) character just leaving the boat. Look at that figure’s elbow forming the right corner of our triangle. Does he even seem aware of what’s going on beneath him?  And to the left of him, we see the young-looking fellow tucked away behind.  He’s only observing…but an important element, bridging the space from the boat over to the head of Christ reaching down to rescue Peter, their hands almost, but just not quite, touching (a wonderful choice).  And the animation repeats itself…a cycle of questioning, deciding, acting, failing, and finally rescuing. A profound statement of the faith process.

A subtle, interesting light source

Another surprising  feature of this drawing started with my questioning the indications of light and shade in the drawing. Often Rembrandt’s more complete drawings utilized tones of wash to indicate light and shade, but not in this case. This is a line drawing only; though somewhat rough in the application, there are (what artist’s call) cast shadows on the hull of the boat, and correspondingly on the ocean.  A cast shadow occurs when an object, in this instance the boat, is completely blocking the light source…(the darker the shadow, the brighter the light) and the figure of Christ and of Peter are very carefully shaded with even hatching lines, exactly as if backlit. I wondered about the intention of this, but the reason gradually became clear. The oval behind Christ is a  representation of the moon, and we then remember (from the biblical account) that this drawing represents a nighttime event.


I invite you to try and view the drawing in that sense…do you agree that the drawing becomes a much richer experience?  Hopefully you can imagine and admire the thinking and visualization necessary to put this together, and yet we should not be surprised.  Rembrandt’s drawings are like that.

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts!

(And, as sometimes is the case, there’s been recent suspicion that the drawing is not by Rembrandt! You can find British Museum information concerning that here).

If you’d like to read my post of another Rembrandt analysis, it’s found here.