UART Tip #55: “Looking to the Horizon” with Lyn Asselta

When working out a composition, one of the aspects I find to be of great importance is the decision as to where I should place a horizon line. When I look back through photo files, I realize that until I consciously began considering the placement of the horizon line, the majority of my photos have that line practically centered in the middle of the image as a result of simply looking forward and snapping the picture to capture what I was looking at.

A painting is a different story altogether and that word “story” is important here. As painters, we tell a story without words. The way we compose a painting is the way we lead our viewer through our story, with all the twists and turns that allow that viewer to experience whatever it is we want them to feel along the way to our focal point.

So, what does the placement of a horizon line have to do with this? It has everything to do with where you’re asking the viewer to stand and observe the landscape you’re painting. It is related to the way your viewer will “step into” the landscape you’re creating.

Simply put, where you place the horizon line is directly related to where you are placing the viewer.  You’re putting the composition into context. You’ve given the viewer a vantage point from which to begin their journey through this landscape.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

With a low horizon, the landscape often becomes about the sky. Obviously, the sky predominates, but if your intent is to focus on the clouds, or on what’s happening in the sky, a low horizon gives you the space to really explore what you’re most interested in. It creates a situation where the viewer tends to skim the landscape plane and look skyward.

Placing the horizon near the center of the painting is somewhat akin to looking at a scene at eye level. It can be calming, or familiar, in that the eye feels as if it is peering directly ahead and observing a scene in a very natural way.

Utilizing a high horizon can be dramatic in that it encourages the viewer to “step into” the scene and travel a distance, allowing for interesting compositional choices to help move the eye back into the picture plane and into the distance.

As with all aspects of the painting process, these are not hard and fast rules, but they are options to consider when you’ve decided what story you want to tell your viewers. It can be  important to compose a painting not just in the way you see it in your reference photo or by way of exactly what you see in front of you when you are painting en plein air, but according to the way you ultimately want the viewer to experience the landscape that you’ve chose to share with them.

Calm, gazing straight out at a scene.

A journey into the scene.

Lyn Asselta, IAPS-EP, PSA-MP

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