Sunday, October 19, 2014

Artist Tip #30 - The Horizon

It's very important for landscape painters to be able to identify the horizon line, and to know how to handle it in their paintings.  According to the dictionary, the horizon is the line at which the earth's surface and the sky appear to meet.  This "line" may or may not be visible in the landscape you're observing.  If you're looking at the sea, where there's nothing "in the way" of the horizon, it can actually be seen.  But there may be features between your eye and the horizon that block your view of it... mountains, trees, or buildings, for example.  In these cases, it's important to be able to judge where that horizon line really is.

In a future artist tip, we'll cover perspective, and you'll learn that all horizontal lines converge in the distance to the horizon line.  But for now, the best way to think of it is as the distant horizontal line at your eye level, when you're looking at the scene.  It may be blocked by closer objects, but it's there none the less.  Here are a few examples of the horizon line.  First, a seascape, where the horizon line is very obvious:

Here is a landscape with a very low horizon line, whose position is much less obvious:

How does one estimate the horizon line in this painting?  Note that it's very clear that you're looking up at the lighthouse - you can see the inside of the turret, and the bottom of the rain gutters.  Also, the sea, which is to the left, cannot be seen even at the lower left of the painting.  So one can deduce that the horizon line is approximately where I've marked it, or even a bit lower.

Here's a painting with a very high horizon line:

Note that when you're looking down at a scene, the horizon line is high.

Choosing the position of the horizon line is part of planning your painting.  You can compose your painting so the horizon line is somewhere near its midpoint, but often more interesting compositions are created by placing the horizon line very high or very low, so that you have an unusual viewing perspective of your subject.

Your center of interest will often be found near the horizon line.  Our comments in Artist Tip #20 about placing the center of interest in an interesting position also hold true about the horizon line.  It's not recommended to put the horizon in the center of the composition - it will split your painting into two equal parts, which is a very boring arrangement.  Put it higher or lower - a 2:1 ratio of area above and below the horizon line leads to a much more interesting composition.  And be extra careful when you use a low horizon line - it's very easy to wind up with a dark horizontal hill or tree line either at the center of the paper, or breaking the picture area up into three equal areas - rather boring.  A high horizon line is much "safer".

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