When we pick up a book and begin reading, one of the first things that comes to mind is a determination of who is telling the story. If it's a work of non-fiction or an autobiography, we probably already know the author from the cover. But if not, the reader must come to some determination regarding the point of view of the writer. It's quick and easy if the word "I" appears quite frequently. We term this a "first-person narrative." I was there, I saw what happened. If the point of view seems to change every page or two, we are dealing with a "roving narrator." If, however, after a few paragraphs or pages, we get the feeling an all-seeing, all-knowing God himself may have penned the words, we call this an "omniscient narrator." And if the point of view is more narrow, ill defined, and uncertain, we have an "effaced narrator." As a writer, I point out these literary elements because I'm decidedly conscious of them. It's one of the first decisions a writer (especially one doing fiction) makes in just thinking about a proposed work.
As a painter, even though similar elements still apply, I'm not usually conscious of them at all. It may even come as a surprise that such things apply. Yet there are some parallels, some close, some not, that I think those of us who wield a brush should consider as we contemplate a given project. For example: When I recently painted a 360-degree mural of a town square in a realistic style with every detail from the number of steps leading up to the courthouse to the yellow traffic lines on the pavement, I was painting from an omniscient point of view. I was playing God (at least in a visual sense), seeing and rendering all there was to see as impartially as humanly possible. In my role as God, I was allowing what would be humanly impossible for a viewer to see in real life--all sides of a scene at the same time.
Several years ago, my wife, son, and I returned from a Caribbean cruise aboard the S.S. Norway. I love the ocean and the ships that sail it so I naturally wanted to do a painting of "ours." The end product, however, was much more than that. It included the ship, of course, displayed most prominently in the upper right quadrant of the painting, but also a portrait of my wife and I based upon a photo taken by the ship's photographer, a view of our cabin from a cruise brochure, a view from a mountain top on the Virgin Island of St. Johns, a beach scene, my ten-year-old son decked out for New Year's Eve, and another of him with an onboard clown. In the centre on a balloon, were the words, "New Year's Eve, 1992-93." This was a painting done from a first-person point of view. I was there; it's what I saw; it's what I remembered.
Shortly after I started teaching, I painted a school classroom. It depicted some thirty-two individual eighth-graders sitting at 1950s vintage bolted-down desks, studying, daydreaming, eyeing one another, there was even a boy asleep at his desk. The room was a gloomy green with the obligatory unfinished portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart on the back wall. Next to it was a world map, a globe, bookcases, open windows, wardrobes, a potted plant or two...in other words, no particular classroom but nonetheless a typical classroom. There was no obvious message, no axe to grind, no story to tell. There were a few subtle elements...the classroom was overcrowded, there was an enormous physical and intellectual diversity amongst its occupants, and only a modest amount of learning was taking place. It was left to the viewer to decided whether this was how the teacher saw the class, how they saw one another, or if there might not been one of an outsider present...a guest speaker perhaps. This is an example of an effaced point of view.
We're all familiar with Picasso. We're probably almost as familiar with his Cubism. And to a lesser extent, we may be familiar with his Guernica. Painted in 1937 in outraged reaction to Spanish revolutionary, Francisco Franco's, airborne saturation bombing of the small Basque village from which the painting gets its name, we have a striking example of the artist employing a roving point of view. We're not presented with a single, specific scene. We're not bathed in blood or any other colour. We're not even presented with easily identifiable figures painted in anything approaching realism. Instead, Picasso works with symbols...bold, searing, emotionally draining, dramatic, intense, powerful symbols. We see a screaming mother, the naked lightbulb eye of God, an outraged bull, a battered dove, a broken sword, synthesised newsprint, flames, destruction, and death all "organised" to reflect the chaos of war. By its very definition, Cubism is an attempt to view a single subject from a roving point of view.
It's all too easy, when we start a painting to think of the term "point of view" as simply the angle from which we view whatever it is we're painting. However that's a very compositional outlook. Regardless of whether we're rendering a "fool the eye" still-life or the most abstract, non-representational amalgamation of forms, colour, texture, lines and shape, there is a more profound application of this term. Think about it the next time you conceive a project. Think how perhaps choosing a less conventional conceptual point of view might lift the work to a higher level. Consider abandoning the safe, the conventional, the expected, for a less obvious way of looking at your subject.