Unity of Vision – Viewfinder of George Inness

Judith Reeve, December Dawn, 16 x 22, oil on linen, 2021 (painting composed with viewfinder)

George Inness believed that a grasp of distance unifies perception creating a singular vision from the multitude of objects in the natural world. Defining this wholeness, Inness declares,

I will first endeavor to unfold to you the law of harmonious vision whereby we have true ideas as to distance or limitation. What is seen through a space at the distance of 3x’s the diameter or diagonal, or in other words at the distance of its own boundary, is seen in unity.

George Inness, Lecture before the Boston Art Club, April 10, 1875

I recreated Inness’ viewfinder to explore his idea of Unity of Vision because I was curious as to what Inness was talking about. What I found by using this viewfinder was pretty surprising, and I am excited to share it with my readers.

Here are the supplies you will need:

  • Square piece of corrugated cardboard measuring 14″x 14″
  • Compass
  • Length of string about 22″ long
  • 1 small washer
  • Blade
  • Masking tape

Take the cardboard and find the middle. Place your compass on this point and open the compass to 3″. Draw your circle. This will produce a circle that will have a 6″ diameter. Cut out this circle. Next, create a hole with the sharp end of the compass at the center of the circle along the side. Place the string through this hole, knot it, and tape it on the backside. Next, measure the string at 18″. At this point, tie the washer to the string. There should be exactly 18″ between the surface of the cardboard and the beginning of the washer. This will be your guide so that you can hold the viewfinder at the correct distance from your eye.

When you use the viewfinder, make sure the washer sits against the side of your eye. This will allow you to view your landscape through the aperture at the correct distance. Look through the aperture with both eyes. What you will find is that your eye will rest within that opening. It will no longer wander around the picture plane. Take note of how much you see. Look at the vertical distance, top to bottom. Look at the horizontal distance side to side. These will be the limits of your perception. Transfer these relationships to your canvas. You are now ready to paint!

I would love to hear about your experience using Inness’ viewfinder. Leave a comment and share what worked for you.

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Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “Unity of Vision – Viewfinder of George Inness”

  1. Hi Judith

    I created your Inness viewfinder and found it corroborated what is considered “normal vision for the human eye” using my four-thirds camera: it’s pretty much on the money, roughly 22mm. How did Inness know the math of field of view?!! Very cool. Thanks. I shall try to control wide angling myself.

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