Van Gogh, Starry Night, with a tilt shift style effect applied

Starry Night by Van Gogh, modified by Serena Malyon

Never has the sleepy town, punctuated by a church and overpowered by the incredible glory of the sky above it, seemed so tiny (via a misguided Reddit post).  It feels like you could reach out and pluck the building out of its setting with just two fingers, holding this human world full of tales and loves and drama in your fingers – but there’s less story in this teeny tiny version with its increasing focus, than in the seemingly over-sharp originals – here’s why.

One of the things I find amazing about certain painting compositions, is the way the artist draws your eye around the scene – they take your focus on a meandering trip around the canvas, showing you things and revealing a narrative.  It sounds a bit overblown, if you’ve never thought about it before, but so many paintings take advantage of it – you’ll see a scene where a face is harshly lit in a dark background, drawing your eye.  They are shocked, or surprised!  You focus on them first – you can’t help yourself.  Then, you follow their line of sight – what is it that has shocked or surprised them so?  We can’t help but follow their gaze (indeed, our eyes may have evolved to make ‘following a gaze’ easier than with the dark eyes of our nearest primate relatives) and so we trace the story of the painting.

Above, however, you can see Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh – one of the most famous paintings in the world – with some modification by Serena Malyon, over at Artcyclopedia.  She’s applied the faux tilt shift effect that has been the subject of several easy tutorials to paintings, instead of photographs, and the result is a window into a vibrant, impressionistic, miniature diorama world.  It’s great.  It is not, however, conducive to telling a narrative story on the canvas (at least, not applied post-painting, as it has been done here).

Paintings that tell a story, or even ones that just use the tricks of the human eye (the Mona Lisa’s smile, for example) rely on us being in control of the focus ourselves.  With these very shallow depth of field effects, our focus can only be where the photographer (or photoshopper) has decided it must be.  Usually, the eye does this for us – paintings are impossibly well focused at many depths – because when we focus, the rest of the world blurs naturally.  So while I love these images, because they look like tiny worlds, they are tiny worlds with one-note stories – and for all their apparent ‘3d’ depth, they are flatter still than the originals.