Narrative Point of View in Visual Art

Most works of art are presented to us, the viewers/ readers, without explanation. They ignore our existence and  are yet designed to display themselves to us as if we are the center of their universe. “Here is an interesting story”, “Here is a collection of sounds”, “Here is a picture for you to look at” “It’s just here, choose if you want to get involved in this made-up story and made up universe or not”. No explanation is given as to why you should get involved and when you read it, the story is told as if you’re not really there. As if the story exists in some fifth dimension. We take all of that for granted and just enjoy the artwork, but when you stop to think about it, the idea that someone is presenting us a story  without acknowledging our presence is rather peculiar, interesting and worth consideration.

What’s more is that the events in the artwork are not just presented randomly. Everything is planned and crafted around you, the viewer, to show you something interesting, beautiful or important, but without acknowledging that you are there to see it (nor is the existence of the author/ artist that created it acknowledged). This is a third person story telling, and, just like it is the most common in literature, so it is also most common in visual art.

Consider, for example, this painting:
Frederick Goodall

Talk about being in the right place at the right time! We just happen to be exactly at the spot allowing us to see this exceptional moment, from a location that shows us clearly and beautifully the story that unfolds, at a crucial moment of the plot. The figures are arranged to appear most beautifully composed from this particular angle, there is nothing in our way, the composition is carefully crafted to maximize our clarity and sense of beauty of the scene, and yet the way the painting is portrayed, it is like we are not even there. The characters in the painting do not know we are observing them or seem to recognize it, even though we are given the best seat in the stadium.
What’s even “funnier” is that paintings would often add random elements to make it seem like the painting is NOT intentionally trying to display itself to you, but that you rather accidentally stumbled across the scene. This is done by placing foreground objects (like the branches of plant covering the baby) and by keeping the main events off center.

But every now and then, artists also create visual art in the second or first person point of view.

The first person point of view in story telling, is when the author is describing their own experiences. Unlike the third-person pov, the existence of a creator is not taken for granted but is instead made the center of the work.
In visual art, this would be represented by self portraits where the artist is portrayed in the act of painting.

A perfect example is this self portrait by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-Portrait

The portrait presents to a viewer the creator herself, while creating a painting. It’s like writing a story that describes what the author is doing at any given moment. First-person storytelling in visual art is more tricky than in literature, because in literature, an author can describe themselves doing all sorts of activities, but in visual art, if the artist just shows themselves doing an activity, it wouldn’t be immediately known that it is them, unless the title or the plaque of the painting says so. And even then, it hardly changes the meaning of what is actually displayed in the piece. So mostly, first-person story telling are paintings about the act of painting. They may or may not acknowledge the existence of a viewer.

This brings us to the last category, the second-person point of view. In this method the existence of the viewer is acknowledged and the story is told as if told to you, the viewer. It is described in this website as: “This point of view treats the reader as the main character in the story. Other characters refer to the reader as “you.” Descriptions are based on what you would see if you were in that situation. This narrative voice is generally reserved for explanatory articles and how-to books, but adventurous writers will occasionally pen a short story or novel in the second person.”

I could not think of a better example than this drawing by Jason Brady.  It is more likely that many would think of this drawing as an interesting gimmick, but actually it is an example of a rare category of point of view in art. Art that interacts directly with the viewer and makes the viewer the center of the piece and the center of the story.

Jason Brady

In this drawing, you are playing a chess game with death. I believe it is your move, and you better choose wisely because the price of  losing is gonna be high.
You are deliberately given a low eye level. Death is towering over you. The chess pieces are giant, bigger than you, almost, and death is staring right at you, waiting for you to make your move.

A common type of second-person pov in visual art is portraits. Especially when the person in the portrait is looking straight at you.

Angelica Kauffmann, Self Portrait 1797

Portraits are explicit about displaying someone to a viewer and they explicitly acknowledge the viewer, especially if the person in them is looking at the viewer like in this portrait. There is no narrative, though. It is a very simple, yet stylized, presentation of the character and looks of one person to another (or others, in plural).

Here is another example of a second-person pov, in this drawing by comic book artist Joe Madureira

Joe Madureira

You are definitely acknowledged as the part of the scene here. In fact, every painting in which a character deliberately makes eye contact with you, the viewer, is a second person pov.

Some paintings will make a viewer implicitly part of the scene without making eye contact or directly interacting with them. The painting can assign the viewer a role by controlling their location in the scene. The eye level and distance from the scene play a crucial role here. In third person pov there is an unexplained distance in which anything could happen. But some paintings will explain everything, all the way down to your nose. This can be achieved by rendering objects that nearly touch you or stand in your way as the viewer.

A scene could be either composed in a distance, as if you are watching a play, or it can be viewed from a point of view inside the scene. I can’t quite classify all examples, but consider this painting by Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech:
You, the viewer, is specifically located inside the scene, sitting in with the rest of the crowd, looking back to see this young man in the row behind you standing up. you even have the man next to him partially blocking your view. The painting does not acknowledge you directly as a viewer, but it assigns you a place in the scene that is inside the scene. He chose specifically to place us in the crowd’s eye level to emphasize the monumental action of the man standing up to speak. This effect would be nearly ruined if our eye level was changed to look at the scene from above, for example. And the meaning and focus of the scene would have changed completely if we were looking at the whole courtroom from a distance, even if the same event was depicted.

The majority of visual art works are in the third person point of view and set a scene that is viewed as if in a theater. The space between the viewer and the scene is not fully explained. You could be viewing it through a window, or a few feet away, or just seeing a poster. But You are not directly assigned a role or a place in the scene.
To illustrate, here are a few examples:

I hope you see that in all of these, you get a sense of a scene deliberately being displayed to you. You are separate from the scene, observing it. You are not part of it and no role is assigned to you. There is no voice of the creator, either.

Some paintings make the viewer part of the scene by changing the eye level, the distance from the picture plane, or add depth to the painting such that items in the painting extend beyond the displayed scene and reach out or encompass the location of the viewer. In all the paintings of the 3rd person pov above, there is a distance between the scene and the viewer which is not visually explained. In painting where the viewer is assigned a location or a role, that distance is explained. It is more common in game art which I included in some of the examples:



In the first, you are somewhere on the ground, the grass obstructing your view, just about to be discovered by this dangerous assassin. In the second, you are right in front of the man in the painting, who looks like he is about to step in your direction or start talking to you. In the third, there are those poles right in front of your face, while the area of the interest, the couple, is all the way in the right of the picture, suggesting you are viewing the entire scene by chance. The Degas painting suggests that you are right there in front of them, strolling around the room. there is really little distance between you and the people in the room. The gameart of Zyra, looking right at you, or the other Zyra which you catch a glimpse of from behind the plants. The size of the plants suggests that they are right in your face, which places you at a specific distance from the scene.

I find that many paintings are still difficult for me to categorize clearly. The tools of visual art are different than those of literature but I find a lot of fascinating commonalities between the two. Another thing this topic has made me realize is that the location of the viewer in your scene is a tool to communicate different messages in your artwork. Things like the eye level and perspective play a significant role, beyond just organizing objects in a scene realistically. They can serve the goal of involving a viewer in your painting to varying degrees. In many paintings, the viewer is just there to watch and appreciate and in some – to participate in different ways. Your art will have a different psychological effect and a different message depending on what you choose.

One thought on “Narrative Point of View in Visual Art

  1. The topic brought up an interesting question someone asked me. I’m including the question and replies here:

    They asked: “What kind of themes require what POV’S …Is there any such classification that can be done?”

    Here are some thoughts about that question:

    I don’t know if there are themes that require a second person pov. That’s indeed really interesting. I think for me, what motivates me personally to create a 2nd person pov are paintings in which the viewer’s identity is the subject. For example, one painting I have in mind is going to involve a mirror that is part of the panel of the painting. And the painting is all about the idea of looking inward and examining one’s own identity.
    The drawing of the chess game is actually the same, the drawing really focuses on the viewer. It’s really awesome, isn’t it? I certainly think so. I don’t know what the title is, but I would name it “make your move”. Anyway to get back on topic.

    I’m trying to think of paintings/ drawings I’ve done because that is the easiest way to figure this out. Come to think about it, the halloween painting I did was the same, with the woman staring right at the viewer. But the theme there is more of that halloween atmosphere, that eerie, serene, out of the ordinary sort of atmosphere, and being “discovered” by a freak creature is more of an accent, an emphasis in that theme, not the theme itself. The painting was not about looking inward, it was about the atmosphere. I could have easily made the same painting with the same theme without the woman looking at the viewer, which means that adding the viewer into the painting is just something that gives it a “kick” in that instance.

    Also, there is that game art in that article of that woman looking right at the viewer, you know, the one with the sexy plant lady. That one’s got a different theme completely. She is smiling, illuminated.. It’s a more happy sort of theme and I think that by having the woman look straight at the viewer and at a very up-close distance it just adds a “kick” to it, but doesn’t change the theme. She could have looked sideways and rendered from more of a distance, it would have stayed the same, but just emotionally involve the viewer a little less.

    So it seems like the use of 2nd pov is not limited to any particular theme on the face of it. However, thinking of the 3rd person pov paintings, some of them would be made worse if the pov changed. So maybe there is some limitation after all. I mean when the artwork is all about the story, all about a scene, then involving the viewer directly subtracts from that and creates a distraction. Like the painting of baby Moses being discovered in the river; involving the viewer in it would just be confusing. It will actually ruin the painting. Why? Because the viewer is not more important than baby Moses. lol. It sounds funny but it’s actually true. If you capture historical moments or some monumental story then it’s all about the story. The story needs to be more isolated and kept apart from any particular person, like the artist OR the viewer. Imagine, for example, if the artist decided to include themselves in that painting of Moses (like some painters would sometimes include their reflection in a mirror that’s inside the scene of the painting). That would make you think that the artist is incredibly boastful. HAHA. I mean, here is baby Moses, the leader of the Jewish tribe and alongside him, Mr. ah.. something something, in the reflection of the river water, being part of history. It’s preposterous.

    The next step is trying to think of more examples in which including the viewer or the artist in the painting would ruin the painting, to see if I can find a generalization.
    OK, here’s another example; how about scene that describe an intimate story or relationship between the people in it? Like, say, a painting about courtship, or a romantic moment of a couple or something like that. So there you are, seeing this couple and some element in the painting includes you in it… what are you, a peeper? See what I mean? It’s disturbing. lol! Like a painting of a couple at moonlight. Imagine if one of them was looking at you. It would ruin the meaning of the scene. Why are they looking at you? Are they trying to make you jealous? Are you some kind of weirdo spying on their intimate moment? There’s just no good explanation for it. Including the artist in the painting doesn’t make it better. It makes the artist into a weirdo.

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