Selective Focus

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Selective Focus

From Virgil Elliott

Published before 2005

Timothy Tyler wrote:

A point I make to students (that I did for one week), one I know many of you will understand, is that when an artist looks at one area, that area behind, in front of, and sometimes beside (in life), will be less than in focus. When everything is very tight - the work does not quite look real.


This is what I refer to as the Principle of Selective Focus. The brain edits what the eyes send it, according to the degree of importance it recognizes for each spot within the overall view, and likewise directs the eye muscles to converge their focus where it deems something of sufficient importance to warrant the effort. The artist who employs this principle most effectively can assign varying degrees of importance to the things in a painting, and thus direct the viewer's eye through the scene as he or she sees fit. However, this power is relinquished when everything is rendered with the same degree of sharpness. The natural tendency is to render each object as sharply as it appears when we are focusing our gaze on it, but this results in too much sharp focus in the overall scene, and thus the picture reads less realistic than if detail and sharp focus were apportioned more judiciously, with areas of lesser importance rendered more simply, edges softened the appropriate amount, etc. Rembrandt was the first painter to demonstrate complete mastery of this principle. Vermeer was probably the second. It is still the least understood of the principles of visual reality.