Dance your eyes, or rhythm in a landscape

I’ve seen a lot of eye-tracking results. My company owns an eye-tracking system that can even track the eye movement while you watch a movie. It’s fun to compare what people say they saw and what they actually watched. Many liberals turn out to be hypocritical racists (they prefer watching athletes of their race saying they were looking at the athletes of the other race) and most men turn out to be male chauvinist pigs because regardless of what they say they watched, their eyes were glued to the cleavage, the legs, the lips. But I don’t think that comes out as a surprise, really. People working in media know this for a fact. As the editor-in-chief of a top-title fashion magazine once told me, the secret to sales was to put a large pretty face, sensual lips, flaring nostrils, the word “sex”, and yellow colour on the front page.

Some day I hope to show the pics for the funniest “outcomes” of eye-tacking exercises, but for now I want to talk a bit about a barren landscape which many viewers enjoy watching despite there’s nothing to enjoy there. “Enjoy watching” may not be a correct term to describe it though. Well, they do watch, but many emerge from this experience with feelings far from simple passive pleasure.

Here it is, have a look for yourself. Very limited palette, no waterfalls, no nice trees or rivers, just a grey asphalt road cutting through fields, barren as in a postapocalyptic movie (before Mel Gibson makes an appearance).

Igor Pchelnikov, winter landscape

The secret of magnetism of this landscape is the number 3.The rhythm of this landscape is built around THREE.  One-two-three, one-two three, one-two three. Waltz for the eyes.

Three horizontal parts:

Three vertical parts:

Triple movements on each side:

With a bit of the fourth on the right hand side, which is there for a very special purpose.

All this makes your eye travel from the bottom to the top of this picture, in the rhythmic manner of a Waltz. The beauty of this waltz is that you still have the power over where exactly you want to be taken.

Some eyes travel along the road. It is the easiest way, actually, greatly helped by the movement built into the field on the left side of the road, and the first two “steps” on the right side of it. You know what to expect there. More road. It is predictable, safe, practical and you’d keep your feet dry and warm. You stay within the known civilization. But some people (who turn out to be somewhat more adventurous persons than the first kind, even if deep inside) wander off towards the right.

That’s risky. You don’t know what’s there. As you reach the frame, you bump into a snow bulwark that’s not present anywhere else in the picture. Would you have to climb it? What’s behind it? Lots of snow in your boots, definitely, perhaps some danger, but what about the reward?

You see, clever rhythm can do wonders in a very simple landscape, with nothing to really enjoy inside it.

Another landscape by the same artist:

Igor Pchelnikov, winter landscape

Now, it’s easy to say there are four dark and three white stripes that create horizontal rhythm. It is also easy to spot the staccato of the planks. But I’m sure to have explained something today, if you can understand the role of the big tree.

What is the role of the tree? Think about that. Tomorrow, I’ll post here my answer, but I’d love to hear yours.


  1. I’m hard put to see what’s less than enjoyable to watch in these landscapes, especially once you explain the “waltz” inherent in rhythmic landscapes. Maybe it’s my rustic roots, but — aside from a house far off in the distance (the neighbor a mile down the road) — I’m used to barren landscapes.
    In the second image, the tree in the foreground becomes an entry point, and causes us to move throughout the image (the first phrase to come to mind was “deeper into,” though that wasn’t quite expansive enough). The eyes dance both sideways and upwards the canvas; a cha-cha or ramba perhaps?
    I am intrigued by your reference to eye-tracking mechanisms that show the psychological side of viewing, well… anything. I find it interesting how web pages (WP included) are generally “eyed” in an F-shape pattern, while subtle cues to one’s personal biases can also show through.
    Great post! Look forward to reading the next one (which I stumbled into on the reader, but decided to get the “background” first).

    1. Usually, a “nice” landscape is thought to be the one with plush vegetation, natural wonders, a nice building at the back to which the eye is drawn. It’s hard to sell a white field with nothing on it but a few shrubs. I am saying that’s a wrong concept, because a barren landscape can be made much more involving, thought-provoking, enchanting and memorable ).
      You are right, the tree gives depth to the picture, because it lets the vertical rhythm to play with our senses, but you’ve probably had already read the next post, so you know you were right )
      Thank you for stopping here, I really enjoyed your brilliant comment!

  2. Mmm… I’ll have a go, but don’t laugh. Does it help with the depth of the picture? By putting it in front of the first picket fence it adds space, the same as the two trees do on the other side of the fence. It stops it from being a flat pattern. Tell me, do artists say to themselves, “I’m going to use the old 3 rhythm for this one” or is it somehow in their vision/ subject already or do artists have it all built in and the labelling comes from people looking afterwards? Anyway, back to the Xmas chores, wordpress stop distracting me!

    1. No, it is never a photographic copy of the landcape they see. Great artists never just copy something. An artist may not rationalise his or her choices, but it is their training and experience that makes them take those choices. I plan to have a post on the difference between a photograph and painting where I’d be explaining and illustrating it )

      PS Van Gogh, for example, even when he was painting a landscape from his window would change the topography from a flat field (introducing barely visible changes in height and distorting perspective) to get the desired effect of moving ground that sends your eye roaming the fields or the roofs of Paris )

  3. A very interesting post and commentary on the landscapes. My first thought on the purpose of the tree is to bring the viewer into the piece. The point just in front of the tree is where the viewer is viewing the landscape. And without the tree the piece is extremely boring. The organic abstract form of the tree gives “life” to the piece.
    I am a digital artist, when you time ceck out my blog. I am subscribing to yours.
    Peace and Light

  4. The tree is the observer and takes the place of us the human observer allowing us to remain hidden whilst we are actually watching the scene – very clever!

  5. Oh, that was really fun. I think I learned something new here. Is the purpose of the tree to drive the eye from the bottom of the painting to the top. And to create vertical movement that also mimics the vertical pickets in the fencing. Um… that’s my final answer 🙂 Thanks!

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