Selective focus
by Robert Genn

March 27, 2009

Dear Rodney,

One of the best ways to engage a viewer is with hard and soft edges. 
California painter Virgil Elliott explains a variety of Old Master 
illusions in his book "Traditional Oil Painting, Advanced Techniques 
from the Renaissance to the Present." "The edges could be sharpened 
selectively," he writes, "to call the viewer's attention to an area 
of greater importance, or to describe an object whose edges were 
actually sharp, such as a starched collar, sword, or piece of paper." 

The idea, of course, is that the artist controls the viewer's eye 
through selective focus. Interestingly, the use of soft focus came 
about with the Venetian School, particularly in the paintings of 
Titian. His use of portable canvas with its slubs and bumps, 
plus the nature of the newly popular oil media, invited the 
use of "short" paint and bristle brushes. In the prior Flemish School, 
"long" paint and soft brushes were more generally used on smooth 
grounds, producing somewhat consistently hard-edged effects. 

Watching folks in a gallery, as they demonstrate the fine art of 
museum dynamics, one notes that it's often the soft blends that 
bring them in closer or cause them to stand back as they try to focus. 

Elliott elegantly describes Titian's use of glazes for dark areas, 
his wisdom of opaque lights and his scumbling for softening between. 
A glaze is a transparent wash over a lighter ground; a scumble is 
a lighter tone dragged over a darker one. "It was found," writes 
Elliott, "that a scumble over a flesh tone would produce the same 
effect as powder on a woman's face; that is, it made its texture 
appear softer." 

Every work of art presents an opportunity to tease an eye. 
Surprisingly, many artists either don't know how to tease, or 
don't care to. Minor or major gradations or soft transitions leading 
to sharp edges generally hold more visual interest than uniformly 
hard-edged renderings or overall amorphous softies. Driven by the 
need for maximum power and presence, artists working at the dawn 
of oil painting quickly grasped the idea of selective focus. The 
illusion is still freely available.

Best regards,


PS: "I am finally beginning to learn how to paint." (Attributed to 
Titian at age 90, as quoted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, 
January 30, 2009, at Davos)

Esoterica: Titian (Tiziano Vecelli, 1485?-1576) was a life-long 
experimenter with the technique and psychology of painting. In a 
studio bumbling with protégés, he spent particular effort in the study 
of colour and its properties, changing his mind and direction often 
during his long life. He pioneered both transparent and semi-opaque 
glazes (semi-glazes), as well as scumbles and all manner of calculated 
softening. Apparently Titian neglected his drawing, leaving that 
job at times to assistants. Michelangelo thought Titian's drawing 
was hopelessly flawed, and spread the idea around.