The Eye — and Mind — of the Beholder

We’ve all heard the adage that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. True, indeed, but may I add that our beholder’s mind may also play a part here? Maybe it’s not always what we see, but what we think we see. Or maybe it’s just our overall state of mind that determines — at least to a degree — how we respond to a work of art.

Yesterday, I wrote about focal points and shared my experience of posting a painting — one which I loved dearly — to a Facebook group only to have it found lacking by another member. Where, she asked, was my focal point or center of interest?

For today’s post, I want to share another painting, this one a watercolor I did. You may have seen this before. In May, 2016, I posted it here — along with a few others — in Heaven’s Above , showing storm clouds I had photographed and painted.

Painted Storm Sky

I was surprised to realize that I had also posted this watercolor in the Painted Sky group on Facebook. I did a double-take when I saw that the first comment this painting garnered came from the same member who had questioned the focal point of my recent painting. And then, I had to laugh a bit when I read her comment:

“Nicely done and not overworked,” she wrote.

I’m sure those words made me feel good, especially since watercolor is not a medium I use often. She made no mention of focal points, a center of interest, or any lack thereof.

When I look at these two paintings together, I see a lot of similarities as far as the essential structure or idea is concerned.

They are paintings of the sky and nothing more. One has storm clouds, it’s true, and maybe those storm clouds formed a center of interest for the woman who commented.

Or — could it be — that she was simply in another state of mind?

Art, of course, is highly subjective, and more and more I wonder how much of our response to any drawing or painting comes from our thoughts rather than our vision. I see a huge difference, of course, when I look back at my earlier drawings and paintings. Sometimes I laugh a bit at something I once thought looked good, but which now seems childish and simple. On other occasions I look back at something I considered awful, but realize it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought.

black-bear-approaching-vi-brownWhen we view a work of art, emotions come into play, and our response will be dependent upon the mood we’re in at that particular moment. While we may believe that thoughts and emotions are separate from one another, they’re closely connected. Psychologists tell us that thought precedes emotion, in fact. The illustration of this principle I best remember involves seeing a bear approach.

A young child would probably not be fearful because they haven’t learned that bears pose danger.

It’s only when we think “Oh, my goodness! There’s a bear coming at me!” that our heart begins to pound and the fight or flight response kicks into gear.

DogOr maybe it’s not a bear. Maybe it’s a puppy on our pathway. Most of us would probably smile. Maybe we would kneel down and make “come to me” sounds, reaching out to pet the adorable little creature.

But someone who’s had a bad experience with dogs in the past — a nasty bite, for example — would probably feel different emotions and would have a much different reaction.

It’s not always what we perceive. It’s all about what we think about our perceptions.

Our brains and our emotions can get so tangled up together that we can respond differently to the same stimulus on different days. One morning your toddler begs for ice cream, and you happily dish it out; the next morning you’re in a different mood. Instead of dishing out ice cream, you start in on a lecture about too much sugar — or whatever other thoughts are going through your brain.

So, in the end, a focal point or center of interest may catch your viewer’s eye, but that doesn’t mean your painting will keep it, or that the viewer will like what they see. A viewer’s reaction and response will always be beyond our control. That, I think, is the true beauty of all art.






  1. I think preconceptions make a difference in what people think of a painting. I like both of the ones you posted but I love the “non-focal” one. (I saw it as a mysterious landscape that gave me the idea of hidden secrets just about to be revealed, but I’m digressing). Anyway, my point is, I think the clouds one is very identifiable as clouds and you don’t expect a focal point, etc., being clouds! The other one, well, being more open to interpretation, the viewer searches to “make sense” of it by relating it to something tangible. Trying to define it sets up a whole set of preconceptions of what it must have in it and what it must be, and therefore something to fall short of (does any of this make sense?). I’m trying to say, people decide what a painting is, means, etc., almost before looking at it, I think.


    1. I think you’re quite right. This is one reason why I wonder if abstract art should ever have a title. It’s all a puzzle to me, to be honest. Art is so subjective. It’s impossible to define what makes a painting “work” — and even then, any painting is only going to “work” for some people. Others won’t like it, no matter what it is or what we do. Yep, definitely a puzzle.


      1. I don’t think you meant to but you just defined only representational art as having meaning, if abstract art isn’t worthy of a title? Sort of implies only recreating a reality is the purpose of art and anything else is not coming from a place of meaning? As I said I don’t think you meant this but it’s quite a sweeping statement.


      2. I certainly didn’t express myself very well LOL. What I’m thinking is that all art has meaning, of course. With abstract art, however, I think the meaning behind the painting may be one thing for the artist and another thing for the viewer. If an artist titles an abstract painting — for example, let’s imagine an abstract painting titled Sunrise at the River — then the viewer is going to look specifically for those elements in a somewhat representational manner. The viewer is going to “see” a sunrise, and “see” a river, but who knows what the viewer might have seen if the painting had simply been called “Abstract 22” or some such non-descriptive title. I think the purpose of art — what a great topic that makes — is to give both an artist and a viewer a means of expression for thoughts and emotions. This can come through representational art or through abstract art. Who is to say what will spark my thoughts and emotions? Or yours? Some paintings “speak” to us or “move” us in ways we can’t really explain, but for some reason, we connect with those paintings. Am I explaining my thoughts any better here? Or am I just making the mess more muddled?


      3. In all my years of selling, I have found the viewer always decides what the painting or other artwork is. No matter what I call it or what I felt. The painting is one experience for me and another one for the viewer(s). I have long ago ceased to care about this – I do what I want and it’s for me. One it’s in the world, the painting or artwork is open to all interpretations. Doesn’t matter what the subject is, what you call it, what you meant. And it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another thing that you should keep in mind when buying cheap colored pencils is that they may have different shades of color, and may be in a certain size. You can ask the salesperson if you can see a sample of a certain size or color of pencil, so that you can find out how they feel about them.


I'd Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s