Art in Exile: The Visual Path of a Painting

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Art in Exile: a blog series focused on introducing beauty into the social media stream during a season of self-quarantine, social distancing, and a global pandemic.

This Art in Exile requires your participation. We’re going to practice following the visual path of a painting. Great paintings train your eye to look at the composition in a certain sequence. Where does your eye go first? Then next?? 

Van Gogh, Les Alyscamps, 1888

Often when we look at art, our eye follows a certain path intended by the artist. We look at paintings a bit at a time. Where does your eye start in this painting, The Reluctant Dragon, by my friend, Justin Gerard? What’s the sequence? 

Justin Gerard, Reluctant Dragon

Using composition to lead the eye allows the artist to tell a story in a single frame. We take in bits of information in sequence. How does Rembrandt lead you through The Return of the Prodigal Son? Where do you start? Finish? 

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669

In DaVinci’s The Last Supper, our focus begins in the middle with Jesus, and then we work side to side, taking in the groups along the way. To me, the group at the far right comes last because they are talking amongst themselves. 

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498

This Winslow Homer painting, The Gulf Stream, unfolds a narrative of danger. We see a man on a boat. We notice the boat is broken. We deduce there must’ve been a storm. He’s stranded. Then we see the sharks. Or we see the sharks before the broken mast. 

Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

Many works like this Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, lead our eye with concentric circles of information emanating from a focal point. A finger in a wound. Then hands. Then the faces of Jesus and Thomas and the others. 

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1601-02

New York Movie, by Edward Hopper, divides the frame in half. We’re drawn to the light, and see the usher first. Then the eye travels left and we see moviegoers enjoying a night out. A study in contrast between social and solitary. 

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939

This Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, has a lot going on. This one is complex. Look at it and pay attention to the path your eye follows. It might be different for each person, but we all start at the same point. 

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

We wrap this study of learning to follow the visual path of a painting with Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. I love how he uses light to put our focus on the storm before we see Jesus, which gives this scene a real sense of dread. 

Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee, 1668


Russ Ramsey
Russ is a pastor and author living in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), and the Retelling the Story Series, featuring The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP, 2018). His personal mission is to communicate the truths of Scripture in accessible ways to people in process. Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

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