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The Three-Act Play | What to look for in a painting.

Updated: May 21, 2023

Those of us my age or older are the TV Generation. We grew up on sitcoms. Every half hour, a new show created a problem, solved the problem, and had some comic relief to wrap it all up. These situational comedies are basically set to the theme of a three-act play. In the first act of a story, you put your character up in a tree, in the second act, you set the tree on fire; and then in the third, you get him down with some comic relief. But before all that, you need a concept. After that, you create the three acts.

1 - Set up

2 - Climax.

3 - Resolution.

It’s kinda funny how similar this is to painting. Painting is essentially started like this, revolving around a concept that gets used in all three acts:

1 - You need a lead-in. (Set Up)

2 - You need a Centre of Interest. (Climax) And of course, there will be a few stops along the way. (The Secondary and Tertiary Centres of Interest)

3 - And, lastly, you need an exit point to leave the painting. (Your Resolution)

Here is how this can work


The CONCEPT is the main idea of your painting. In some books, it’s called a motive. Others call it your motif. Your motive involves the main spatial areas of your design. For example, large mid-ground hills with a medium-sized foreground and small sky are one motif, or concept if you will. You can have an arrangement of any of the three main spatial areas (foreground, mid-ground or background/sky) as your concept. Put your actors on top in good places and begin your play. When you have a strong concept, you’ll have a great design and you can repeat this over and over. For example, large mid-ground hills with a medium foreground and small sky are concepts. Use this concept over and over. Paint this as a morning painting, evening painting, foggy painting, misty rainy painting, winter, spring, fall. It’s still the same concept. Heck, you can use the same players over and over on each one. Flip it horizontally, and you get a whole new painting, and no one is the wiser.

Monet was the king of this. Look at all his Water Lily paintings. They all have the same concept - Monet painted them small, large, super large, mornings, evenings, summer, and fall.

Impressionistic painting of a lily pond.

Bright blue painting of a lily pond.

Green painting of a lily pond.

Yup, all the same concept. Large foreground, medium middle ground, small background/ sky/exit point. And again… a different format, different seasons but the same concept.

ACT 1 - The Set-Up:

Set-Up is the introduction to the whole play. Meet the players. In a painting, this is called the lead-in or sometimes referred to as radiating lines. Minor marks or lines that will take you into the image and introduce you to the main characters. Your barn, your tractor, the fence and the barn.

Impressionistic oil painting of a house and a barn in the winter.

Impressionistic oil painting of a house and a barn in the winter. With lines indicating the painting takes you in.

Tibor Nagy’s radiating lines lead you in as you are about to be introduced to the house.

Oil painting of trees in the fall with a house off to the right.

Fredrick Maulhaupt, with a smooth execution of radiating lines, forms his set-up.

Painting of a woman sleeping in bed with a white blanket. Red lines are indicating how the viewers attention goes to the woman sleeping.

Painting of a woman sleeping in bed with a white blanket.

Kevin Bielfus uses the bedspread and it’s radiating lines to lead you into the painting.

ACT 2 - Climax:

The stuff in your painting - the barn, the cows, the trees and the shrubs are your actors. They fit on the stage and are wherever you need them to be. They will all lead you to a centre of interest. Like a good play, you want to avoid too many lead characters, or things get hard to follow. All these characters’ jobs are to lead your eye around to the tree that’s on fire. This is the climax of your play. The centre of interest. As the great watercolourist, Edgar Whitney said, ‘If you’re going to take all this time to lead the viewers’ eyes around to a centre of interest, there better be something good when they get there!’

Painting of a house from the outside, flowers are displayed before the house.

The climax or centre of interest in this Camille Prezwodek work is the build-up of the light flowers.

Painting of two motorbikes parked on the street in front of a yellow building.

Radiating lines take you to the juxtaposition of the Harley with the scooter. You can exit through the stairway - brilliant.

Painting of a woman with her back turned to the camera and her face showing.

The crescendo is the lead-up to the hands and the finger delicately touching the face. This was done with a felt marker.

ACT 3 - Resolution:

In your play, the resolution is the problem solved. A little bit of comic banter and roll the credits. In your painting, the resolution is quite often called an exit point. It’s a place where the viewer’s eye can leave the image in order to start the process all over again. You enter the painting, are led to the centre of interest, and then are quietly led back out in order to start all over again. Degas was the king of exit points.

Painting of a dance rehearsal. The teacher is standing in the middle.

In this 1880s work by King Eddie, he uses the mirror as a window or an exit point for the viewer to leave the painting. Without this mirror, the room gets very claustrophobic. The viewer gets almost trapped. Just try putting your finger over it. There is no ease to the ending.

Painting of a ballerina dance rehearsal. Dancers are sitting down and in chairs.


Painting of a ballerina dance rehearsal in an old building. Everyone is dressed in white.


Painting of a ballerina dance rehearsal in an old building. Teacher is standing in the middle of the dancers.


Painting of a woman and a man sitting down at a restaurant.


The repetition of this theme, I would believe, could constitute a concept…

Portrait painting of a young woman staring at the viewer. She has a red hairband in her hair.

Nicolai Fatchin…The light behind the subject’s head is an exit point. Fetching uses this theme over and over.

Painting of a woman in a blue dress with her arm up and resting on her thigh.

Let’s put it all together:

Here is a slightly brooding Walter Sikart (aka Jack the Ripper.) painting from 1908.

Painting of a woman laying on a bed in a white dress with a white pillow.

The concept - Large middle ground, medium foreground, small background. The setup - The radiating lines of the duvet lead to the main character. The climax - The sleeping nude and the highlight on her hip. This is genius. If you have ever had to paint some breasts and not have them as the focal point in the image, then you will know how hard this is to achieve. Well done, my friend. The resolution - The window in the upper right-hand corner. This is your background and/or your exit point.

I hope you enjoyed the play. Please keep your playbill as a memento of this beautiful evening. Keep those brushes swinging,

Your friend in art,


PS. I wouldn’t take the alley home. Just sayin’.

PSS. Walter was never Jack the Ripper, though they did try to pin it on him. Look it up. It’s an interesting story.

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The setup - The radiating lines of the duvet lead to the main character. snow rider 3d


Annemarie Darrach
Annemarie Darrach
Jun 07, 2023

Informative article Doug. I had never heard about exit points but as you explained in the article, they are a very important part of a painting. I will be sure to incorporate them in my compositions and not have them occur by a happy accident. Knowledge is power. Thanks

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