Flip out


Well-known member
Most, if not all of us are aware of the value of checking a painting with a mirror as you go along to find errors and spots to improve. Good advice. Unfortunately, sometimes, the mirror will reveal a big mistake when it's too late to correct - a mistake in composition. So a good time to use a mirror is before you start painting. And it's not just a matter of seeing with "fresh" eyes - it's surprising how some compositions look and feel different when flipped.

A lot has been written about the importance of establishing a path within a painting for the eye to follow. Again good advice. But there is also a "natural" path eyes follow - one that has been conditioned since childhood through reading- that is a proclivity to see a scene painted on a flat surface as if it were like other things we habitually see on flat surfaces like signs, and book and papers - that is we start left to right - top to bottom.

So what if the center of interest is on the left side, or the right side, the path leads bottom to top, right to left - or negative space is on the right or left, people look one way, stand another way. You can make a painting any way you choose but be aware of the hidden valence, tick, nudge that is subverted or reinforced depending on how it's composed.

Fortunately, you don't need a degree in psychology or physiology to figure this out. All you have to do is look at your composition in a mirror. You will "feel" the difference ( when it makes a difference). And then IF you haven't already started painting you can choose which works best for your intended purpose.
As I go along, I take progress shots of my work and look at them on my computer. I flip them mirror image wise in PS and study them to make decisions. I have always said that painting is 50/50 (looking/painting), but maybe that's why it takes me forever to finish a piece. The mirror has always been great advice. Good post.
not the best example but...

We have a proclivity to read left to right, dark to light. There is a "path" to the girl. Maybe the girl wishes she was with the audience watching the move instead of being an usher.


We see a despondant usher. Why? Does her feet hurt? We want to look right, but the light makes it harder to go right. We see the setting, now we look back at the girl with a different opinion.

Okay my interpretaton could be all wet (doesn't matter) , but I think I'm right about the "proclivity". Both paintings have a path for the eye to follow - but one is going "uphill" .

which is right? Either one could be, it depends on how you want to tell the story. A good case could be made for either. But imo they are different - and it's something you might want to consider, and consider before you start painting... and I think Hopper was aware of this at least on an instinctual level when he made the painting.

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it's all very interesting and helps you get an idea.
thank you.

to me it is natural (restful, I do not know,) the second photo.
I would have said, I thought the second was not mirrored.
There is nothing that will reveal a mistake as quickly as posting a picture of your work publicly. 😁
As Bongo noted, most of us in the West "read" a painting from left to right (just as we read). This results in a real change if we attempt to judge a painting by turning it upside down or looking at it in a mirror. I found it far more successful to turn a work to the wall (or otherwise put it out of sight for a while) and then come back to it later with fresh eyes. Often, the smallest little detail that we imagine to be a major problem only seems like such because we are aware of it (and that it wasn't quite what we had intended)... and only because we keep looking at it. Other times, looking with fresh eyes allows you to see the most glaring mistake. I remember working on one painting and thinking something was wrong... but I couldn't put my finger on it. After not getting into the studio for a few weeks I walked in, saw the painting in question, and virtually yelled out "Holy crap!" The face was so obviously out of proportion like a Hapsburg aristocrat... or worse. :LOL:
Yes, yes. "fresh eyes" is for me/many the sure way to find errors. As Snowball pointed out, posting your picture online - is the quickest (and most painful) way to get fresh eyes.

But the point I'm trying to make - is to study your composition - reversed left to right - BEFORE you paint. - in other words your reference material, sketch, drawing, etc. You might discover that the "look and feel" of the composition works better that way.

What has happened to me, on more than one occasion, is that I look at my painting-in-progress in a mirror to check for mistakes and have an "oh shit" moment (as opposed to an ah ha moment) realizing (too late) that it would have worked better if the image was reversed. This not so much about discovering errors as discovering a certain je ne sais quoi.
I've always found that the true colors, scale, etc... of a painting changes our perceptions so much so that I rarely ever make preliminary sketches. I work directly on the surface that will become the final painting. I have come to recognize that I can make any changes... even the most drastic... if needed.

Having said that... there have been a few times I wish I had been a bit more careful. One that I remember most resulted from mismeasuring the paper I was working on... so that I wasn't square.