Focus in on Focus by Hugh Seaforth Mackenzie
There are many layers to focus on when viewing Hugh Seaforth Mackenzie’s 1979 painting Focus. In order to dissect some of these layers, it is helpful to have an understanding of the artist’s educational background and artistic expressions. Mackenzie is known for his realist painting, however his drawings and prints have also been described as expressionist or fauvist. He attended the South Collegiate Institute, London, Ontario (1943–1946), the Ontario College of Art (1946–1950) and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, France (1950–1951). Mackenzie also attended Mount Allison University and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1954. His professors at the time were Alex Colville and Lawren P. Harris. Colville was especially influential on Mackenzie. Colville is known for the immense detail created through small brush strokes and precise geometric compositions. Colville is regarded as the Grandfather of what is known as “Atlantic” or “Magic” Realism. Mackenzie returned to Ontario after his degree and, from this point on, the influence of Colville and how that influence impacted his aesthetic and compositional choices, is clear. You can find out more about Alex Colville in our recent blog post featuring his piece Ocean Limited (1962).
Look at the precise details in this depiction of a female nude figure. Mackenzie’s work has been described as photo realist, realist and high realist much like Colville and other artists under whom he studied. Mackenzie’s depiction of the figure looks as if it could be a photograph. With such precision, you may be left wondering why there is a large circle placed over her torso. It is interpreted, with assistance from the title of the artwork, that it is as if the viewer is looking through the lens of a camera and the circle is the focusing split screen. In 35mm cameras, and other film cameras, there is a focus ring visible inside the view finder enabling the photographer to adjust the focus of the composition with accuracy. When looking at something with a straight line through the view finder, like a window, these lines on the split screen in the circle match up when in focus. In Mackenzie’s painting you can see that the figure is in clear focus with no blurred lines. He has connected two different mediums, referencing his style of photo realism with use of photographic elements.
Mackenzie was able to create photo-realistic paintings by layering small, repeated brush strokes. This process lends well to using egg tempera which Mackenzie used for Focus. Egg tempera is a media that is most recognized for use during the Renaissance period. This medium creates a smooth, rich visual texture but is challenging to work with. Egg tempera is unlike oil or acrylic paint due of the speed with which it dries. It is therefore tricky to mix and blend colours on the surface of the painting while working. However, egg tempera is desirable as it is easily made at home by extracting the yolk of an egg and mixing it with distilled water and pigment. The egg yolk serves as a binder to hold the pigment together. Once egg tempera dries on a painting it leaves a slightly glossy finish. Creating dimensionality using egg tempera takes several layers of small brush strokes or cross hatching to build up tonal value. It is a long process as it takes numerous layers to reach the desired effect. In Focus, Mackenzie first painted the figure and then layered the light purple-grey circle overtop. This colour is slightly darker than the center of the background but matches the colour of the vignette of the painting. This technique connects tones to encourage the eye to travel around the composition, and is commonly used in photography.
Looking at the layers of Hugh Seaforth Mackenzie’s Focus, and specifically considering the background, medium choice and compositional decisions, allows you, as the viewer to choose your own focus whilst looking at his work.
Hugh Seaforth Mackenzie
Egg tempera and graphite on masonite
40.6 x 50.9 cm
Gift of Christopher Ondaatje, Toronto, Ontario, 1994. 1994.239