Eye control score


Dear Artist,

Every picture you’ve ever looked at has been designed with your travelling eyes in mind. Here’s an exercise for the next time you’re in a gallery: Scan paintings one-by-one in a half squint. Without over-thinking, give each painting’s eye control a score from 1 to 3, with 1 being average, 2, good, and 3, excellent. Are you travelling around within the picture’s edges, enjoying a balance of visual excitement, places of rest, satisfying weighting, depth of field and an intuitive tension and resolution? Are you feeling a sense of paucity and getting adequate information about the subject? Is there an ineffable sensory pleasure? Are your eyes held and also moving? To avoid a low score, the painting must not, as my dad would say, “shoot your eyes out of the picture and over to the other guy’s.” Here are some more ideas:

Composition VII (1913) 78.7 × 118.1 inches oil on canvas by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Composition VII (1913)
78.7 × 118.1 inches
oil on canvas
by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Contrast: Darks and lights are not only fundamental to pulling off a convincing and natural realism — contrasting values satisfy a need for balance and weighting in all styles. Masters of eye control use contrast to anchor parts of the composition, to give order to shapes or to guide the eye along a storyline.

Curves and angles: There’s a reason why fruit and round bottoms keep making it into masterpieces. The eye will instinctively follow a curve. In geometrics or architectural subjects, a pointed end or the connection to a new line is a visual pleasure point.

Horizon: The universal signal for uprightness, a horizon helps to ground the viewer and organize a place. In abstraction, a horizon-like line can provide a tether to an otherwise cacophonous symphony of form.

Colour: The mother of all languages, colour is the first signal of where to look, where to linger and where to get lost.

In Grey (1919) 50.8 × 69.3 inches oil on canvas by Wassily Kandinsky

In Grey (1919)
50.8 × 69.3 inches
oil on canvas
by Wassily Kandinsky

Gradations: Dad said, “Why paint a flat when you can make it a gradation?” In art school, my prof called them “suckerblends,” pejoratively implying they sucked the viewer in with their good looks and charm. The point is, the eye wants to take in that whole, beautiful suckerblend — and you can direct it.

Flats: Dad said, “Give the eye a place to rest and stay awhile.” A flat, or even a super-flat, offers a void-like space in which to get lost in the materiality of pigment. In realism, flats punctuate and frame distance, drapery, reflections, cloudscapes, light bursts and wet noses.

Foreground: A wide-angled, receding landscape without the counterpoint of a human-scaled foreground is a trip to the country without a picnic basket.

Floaters: Objects floating in space can effectively contain the eyes as long as they avoid homeostatis and use breath and variety to tell the story. Be daring and poetic and don’t forget to play what’s not there.

Composition x (1939) 51.2 × 76.8 inches oil on canvas by Wassily Kandinsky

Composition X (1939)
51.2 × 76.8 inches
oil on canvas
by Wassily Kandinsky

Gestures: Gestures are moving marks that pull the eye where they want it to go. They need to be understood for their primal power and also checked for misdirection.

Left to Right: Or right-to-left, depending on which way you read your native alphabet. Unconsciously, we may arrange objects to “read” like language, and when doing so, lock our viewers into the same routine. If overused, we can miss the winding road.




PS: “Even in front of nature one must compose.” (Edgar Degas)

Esoterica: Lastly, the king of eye control. “Perspective,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci, “is to painting what the bridle is to the horse, the rudder to a ship.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The composition is the organized sum of the interior functions of every part of the work.” (Wassily Kandinsky)




  1. I have always loved Robert’s sence of humor. I read the “letters” when I need help or encouragement .
    I’ll always be grateful for the love of Art that he shared every week .

    • Those strong horizontals shoot one’s eyes “right off onto the other guy’s work” as Robert says. That big green horizontal “thing” needs to go, or at least be toned down a lot. Try just that and I think you’ll see a vast improvement!

    • This is a very dynamic painting – I find my eye dashing back and forth in it – but you are right, there is no place for the eye to rest! An obvious solution, in my mind, would be to put something in the exact centre… between the two centre trees there is a space. If it is an important space to have empty, there should be some hint as to why. Otherwise, why not have something enter – or be about to enter it – from below, or from one side.

      • Marco Menato on

        … that’s precisely what I was about to try! I was going to put a child sitting on that left right mossy log, bang in the centre, back to us looking to the distance. In dark silouette probably, but a bright border. How about that for confirmation … i like the synchronicity :-) Definitely worth a try. Thank you!

      • Marco Menato on

        … and it will assist in breaking the horizontal line which, as Wendy suggested needs to get less dominant.

    • Liz Williams on

      Marco, Your painting is fascinating in its detail and imagination. I believe it struggles with what I call the ping pong effect. You have two colorful areas, at the extreme right and extreme left. The one at left has brighter color and higher contrast. At right the three figures and faces trump all else in drawing the eye, but still we keep looking back and forth. I believe the one at left could be less bright. Purest color and highest contrast work best at your chosen center of interest, which is the group of figures. With all the variety of plants and lines available, let some lead the eye gently in a circle around the composition. On the other hand, I would break into that continuous curving line across the lower portion of the work. In my humble opinion. :) Best wishes

      • Marco Menato on

        Thank you, Liz. Yes, it certainly does cause one-s eye to ping-pong. To its credit, it does reflect actual experience in the forest, but it doesn’t make for a decent viewing experience at all, I discovered later. I can’t take it all out, but I’ll work on these points. Thanks again!

    • Hi Marco. Nice piece. Your center of interest, the three figures, are well done. The thing that I might modify is the large yellow shape on the left edge. It is very dominant for a shape on the edge. I would also consider adding a touch of the blue in the figures a couple of other place in the middle or left side of the painting for color unity.Since I like your grays so much, I might consider graying that yellow WAY down, which would create another quiet area for the eye to rest. Or simply painting it light to medium gray. Your white flowers along the bottom have more contrast than anything else in the painting, so I would tone that white way down to reduce the contrast. Your greatest contrast, sharper edges and the most detail need to be in the figures which are the center of interest. In terms of design, I find that following the elements and principles of design make life a lot easier and paintings much stronger. Good luck with your beautiful piece.

      • Marco Menato on

        Good morning Maureen. Thanks for your advice. It makes sense, and I’ll try to “dull” the brightness on the left. I had the same perception about finding a way to add some blue on the left to tie it together. And yes, I had also thought about quieting the background – my intent was to create 3 levels of depth, and I’m not satisfied either. I’ll play with the gray areas.

        I know what you mean about following “design principles” being helpful. I have found that it stifles my creativity to begin with principle rather than imagination, so I tend to put it all down, and then refine it. But … often, along the way, I get so committed to a shape, colour, or feeling, that I lose objectivity in the evaluation of my work. Over time, particularly on large canvas, I often get accustomed, and adjust my own experience to the painting, rather than the other way around. Just like the article suggests, I guess. That’s why I turned to you for suggestions this time. And what a useful exercise it seems to have been.

        I work, and live remotely, so this is indeed a unique opportunity to get some feedback. Thanks again.

  2. Hi Sara,
    Actually, I don’t think color is the first eye director, rather, it is tonal value. The power of light and dark seems to address where to look, where to linger, how to move. The pattern of light, the structure of darks. The balance employed with lights, darks, and grays. Tonal value is a compositional element, just as important as the distribution of shapes. The pieces by Kandinsky simply seem like a busy jumble. Consider the power of film noir. Sorry, this article is not my favorite, though many by you Sara, resonate with keen insights and intelligence, for which I’m deeply grateful.

    Nancy Oppenheimer

    • Hello Sara, I disagree with Nancy O’s response to your letter about the Kandinsky approach and images which you used to illustrate your very interesting article about a worthwhile journey through a painting starting with your father’s is is a 1 or a 2 or a 3 . I found that formula still very helpful. Of course Kandinsky is often not an easy encounter ..although his earlier paintings are more ‘accessible’ and an utter delight in his glorious use of colour-perhaps the yanking up of the demands on the viewer which abstraction allowed is often difficult to’ get’..except if the almost golden rules about value and contrast and rhythm are followed. Maybe compare the underlying framework of K’s later more musical/ explosive paintings with his earlier more representational paintings would show that the 3 rules still actually work. Try this, as I will : lay the earlier Kandinsky image under a more abstract painting of his and ‘look through’. through overlaying /looking at both through each other (held up against a window pane allowing the light through /or using a light box to find their underlying structure)- This may reveal a more comfortable connection and greater structural framework than one might initially expect.
      It would be good to check and see if Robert’s 3 rules work with Rothko’s paintings.???.I think they do because of colour,tone and the frame of the canvas echoing the frame of the recurring window shape of his work.

    • Who was it that said “Value does all the work, color gets all the credit.” That has stuck with me. If your values are off, color can’t fix it.

      I think understanding and mastering all of these rules is incredibly valuable; know how to move beyond them is when the art begins to get more interesting.

  3. Marco, I would lighten the value of the background and place something there to draw my eye into this very interesting landscape. I want to have a reason to tempt me in.

    • Marco Menato on

      Thank you Ramblin! That may indeed be the way to start. I received 3-4 suggested paths to resolution from the feedback. I aim to try all to some degree, but I think I’ll begin with background value, as I do want more depth. I think by resolving the “depth” issue first, it may make it less complicated to resolve the “sideways ping pong” eye effect.

  4. Thanks for the article and for the generous, useful feedback to my request for assistance. For those who wish, I’ve posted a pic of the painting after incorporating your suggestions (I haven’t included a central figure, but I may). You can see what the pic looked like earlier if you scroll down. I think its better!

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

Watercolor Painting Holiday Workshop – Lucca Italy, with international, award-winning artist Amanda Brett
May 12, 2019 to May 18, 2019


Come and paint with me in Lucca, Italy, May 2019!!

My painting holiday workshops are all about the fun of painting in a supportive group environment and is suitable for all levels. Mostly, we’ll be painting en plein air (a nice quiet locale in which to play with our paints!) and enjoying the fresh air. I know Lucca like the back of my hand and will take you to some of my favourites spots!! Each day will start with a short theory session, with an emphasis on quick value sketching then a demonstration of the day’s painting subject out on location. We will also explore subject selection and strategies to tackle complex subjects. After a lunch break, I will let you loose to paint and then come and help each student in turn throughout the afternoon.
After a well-deserved siesta, we’ll meet up for aperitivi and on to dinner; Lucca’s favourite dining spots will be waiting for us with a special menu just for us!

Tuition, meals, luxury en suite B&B accommodation, on-ground transfers and excursions are all included!!

E1895 Euros per painter, no single supplement

For more information email Amanda


https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/purple-series1-2285-1-wpcf_300x295.jpgPurple series #1
Oil on canvas with pyrite and amethyst
48 x 48"/122x122cm

Featured Artist

Candace studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Angers, France but it is her travels in the deserts of Africa and Oman, Antarctica and the Arctic, and sacred sights of Machu Picchu and Petra that serve as her true place of learning. A desire to combine these experiences with a deeper understanding of her own spirituality has provided the underlying focus and inspiration for her paintings.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.