Using The Hay Wain, this post will show you tricks artists use to catch your attention and then move your eyes around to take in all the details—often without you even realizing it!
Here is a link to the National Gallery page where you can look at and enlarge different sections of The Hay Wain so you can get an idea of how this very large painting has so many spaces and things to explore.
First–getting your attention: Most paintings have something the artist wants you to notice first. It may be the face of the sitter in a portrait or a particular flower or object in a still life. Landscape artists may choose to focus on a tree or a sunset, or haystacks as Monet did in his haystack series. Whatever it is, it’s called the focal point.
In The Hay Wain Constable has used red to focus your attention on his focal point–the wagon and horses. The horses’ harnesses have bright red fringe. Artists use red for this purpose so often, that you can often just look for that color to find the focal point of many paintings.
Artists also use other things to call attention to the focal point.
- A central position
- Larger size
- Up close
- The title of the painting!!
- People in a painting may all look toward or even point to the focus
- Bright colors or pattern in addition to, or instead of, red
- Light and shadow contrasts
Activity: Which of the above techniques did Constable use in addition to red to facus your attention on the wagon and horses?
Second, once you’ve noticed the focal point, artists use more tricks to move your attention on to other parts of their work.
1. Related or similar colors throughout a painting draw your eyes onward
Activity: What object in The Hay Wain has colors related to red? Yes, the roofs of the cottage, which may have actually caught your attention first. But it’s kind of a back and forth thing between the roofs and the wagon and horses, so your attention goes back and forth, too.
2. Similar shapes can move your eyes around also
Activity: Notice how the large tree shapes lead your eyes back to the smaller trees in the background. They seem to march from large trees on the left, to medium ones in the middle, to small ones in the background on the right, but all have a similar shape, so they create movement around the painting.
3. Lines can move your eyes around, and stop you from wandering off the canvas.
Activity: Follow the diagonal line of the wagon and horses as it points toward the left. Do you see how that could take your attention right out of the painting? Now trace with your eyes the curve of the pond and see how Constable has used the curve to move your attention back to the center. Try not to follow it. You can’t!!
4. Speaking of that curve. Landscape artists often use a curving path, road, or stream to lead your attention back into their painting. Here Molly and I are following a path, and you can see how your eye follows it with us.
Activity: In the Hay Wain notice how the millpond narrows and curves back into the scene. Some of it curves around the house, but the lighter, more noticeable, section curves toward the far field. It’s as if you could walk along that path right into the painting!
5. Light and shadow also move our attention around. The sunlit parts of the pond move our eyes to the light on the house and back to the sunlit field.
(Some are specific to landscapes, while others can be used with many subjects)
1. Strap on your backpack and take an imaginary walk or boat ride into the painting. What would you need to wear or take for the weather?
2. While on your walk or boat ride, tell what you would see, smell, hear, feel, and if appropriate–taste!! (warm sun, bees buzzing, scratchy hay, cool water, soft grass, etc.)
3. How does the painting make you feel–happy, sad, peaceful, excited, afraid, etc?
4. What kind of colors does the painting have? warm or cool? calm and peaceful or electric and exciting?
5. Have children go on a scavenger hunt to find things in the painting: colors, textures, certain people or objects or other creatures. Find a curvy, wavy, straight, or zigzag line. Find circles, rectangles, triangles, etc. (these don’t have to be mathematically perfect shapes. This is ART!!)
6. Look at the lady getting water, the dog, or the person in the bushes and make up a story about them. Do any of them live in the house? Are there any children, and if so, what sort of jobs would they have?
7. Tell a story about the duck family.
8. What animals will the hay feed over the winter?
9. What are some other ways people in the painting are caring for their animals?
10. What are some things we see in this painting that show how God cares for our daily needs?
I hope you have fun exploring The Hay Wain yourself and with your children! Let me know which activity you or your children especially enjoyed.
For all those out there who love horses as I do, the next post, a devotion for this painting, will center on those three patient and powerful black horses! Don’t miss it! Sign up now.