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February, 2009 - Establishing a Focal Point

Last month I discussed painting with a “purpose”. I talked about the need to ask why we select a particular subject, what we want to say to the viewer about that subject and how we can best design our paintings to convey that message. I posed a few questions to that end:

 “What is my focal point, and what’s the best way to achieve it?”  “Do the lines in my painting lead to that focal point?” “ Is the viewer stuck there, or did I leave an egress into the rest of the painting?” “Are there counter balances within the painting to move the viewer’s eye around?” “Are the lines of my painting generally diagonal, to give the painting motion, or are they mostly vertical and horizon for a quieter, more serene feel?” Are my dark, light and middle values arranged in a way that gives the painting solidity and interest?”

In every painting there needs to be a “focal point”; some singular point of interest. Some place for the viewer to, so to speak, hang their hat. In a portrait, this is pretty well handled by the very nature of the subject. In all other types of paintings (landscapes, seascapes, florals, still lifes, market scenes etc.), a focal point must be crafted by the artist. It is paramount that the artist be clear where he wants that key point of interest and how best to direct the viewer’s attention to that spot.

Let me begin by saying, if you place an animate object in a landscape the viewer’s eye will quite naturally go there first. Unless the group of animals, or figures, is a design element in itself, it’s best to put a bit more emphasis on one of the objects in the group. This helps the viewer to latch on to something concrete.

Although there are a myriad of ways to develop a “focal point”, I’ve included a few examples that may help to lay some groundwork along those lines.

The first is a 12x16 watercolor titled “Along the Cornwall Coast”. Notice how your eye goes immediately to the figure carrying the water pails. Now cover up the figure and see how dramatically the landscape changes. Animate objects command attention. Without that figure, there is nothing in particular to capture your attention.




The following piece is a painting I did for the El Paso Food and Wine Festival. It’s 30x40 oil called “Stomping the Grapes”. This is an example of having a group of figures, but keying in only a portion as a focal point. Notice how I’ve spotlighted the women stomping the grapes, and subdued all the ancillary figures. Even in the group of stompers, I pushed the highlights on the face and shoulder of the girl on the left. This helps to eliminate any confusion of where I want my initial emphasis to be.




This painting (“Reluctant Retreat” 18x24 oil) employs another handy tool when establishing a focal point. I use the principle of “aerial perspective”, where objects get lighter and cooler as they retreat in the landscape. The rider with the gun in the air commands immediate attention. The horse and rider contain the darkest darks in the painting (all the other darks have been grayed down so that they will recede). The saddle blanket against the dark body, and that bright star on the horse’s forehead (the lightest spot in the painting) are pretty demanding. I’ve also purposely kept the edges of the distant riders soft, and out of focus.



I painted “Las Flores” (9x7 watercolor) on a hot ninety-degree day at the Dallas Flower Market. My friend, Chase Almond, and I took refuge from the sun under one of the open-air tents. This bunch of flowers was just a few feet away, sparkling in the sunlight. Even though I painted the whole piece wet into wet, from start to finish, I was very careful not to treat all the flowers equally. The only white paper in the painting is the big flower at the upper right hand side. It is the brightest spot in the painting, ergo, the focal point of the piece. When painting florals, it is always important to select a particular flower (or small grouping) as a point of emphasis, with the other flowers acting as supporting players with varying degrees of lesser emphasis.


las flores


This 9x18 oil is called “Summer’s End”. I didn’t leave much room for doubt on this one. The front end of that boat on the lower left is the brightest spot in the painting. For extra punch, I placed it right up against a solid dark. Talk about drama. That dead tree on the upper right makes a nice counter balance. Even though the tree also sits against the dark background, I subdued its value so that it would not compete for equal attention with my focal point.


summers end


These examples don’t pretend to be an exhaustive list of ways to establish a “focal point”. It’s enough to know that there needs to be a “focal point” in every painting that we do. How we establish our center of interest is a problem that is unique to each painting endeavor.

Always ask yourselves, “Why am I painting this painting?”, “What am I trying to say?” and “How can I best design this painting to convey my intentions?”. When you answer those questions, you go from being a person who merely applies paint, to being a real artist.

Happy Painting!