Thursday, January 24, 2008

Composition and Design - finding and creating a focal point

This post is about how to create a focal point in a picture. It provides a synopsis of various approaches used by artists to find and create a focal point.

I'm afraid it all looks a bit list-like at this stage however I'll be saying some more about parts of it as this composition project progresses during 2008.

Why have a focal point at all?

"Emphasis" is one of the design principles. Providing an emphasis on a particular part of a painting will lead the eye to what the artist wants the viewer to see.

What is a focal point?

The focus of a picture should be about the reason why you wanted to paint it. So for example, when working plein air it should focus on what attracted you to a particular view and then held your attention. In a still life, it might be whatever caught your eye in a 'found' set-up.

ArtLex provides the following definition
focal point- The portion of an artwork's composition on which interest or attention centers. The focal point may be most interesting for any of several reasons: it may be given formal emphasis; its meaning may be controversial, incongruous, or otherwise compelling.
ArtLex - focal point
How is a focal point achieved?

When viewing a drawing or painting, the viewer's eye is led through the work. How the eye moves depends on how the eye scans visual information, cultural factors and how the drawing or painting has been designed using the elements and principles of composition.

How the eye tracks visual information: Those countries which read from left to right train the eye to scan anything visual from left to right. This usually means that people from 'western' cultures (ie the Americas and Europe) tend to look at artwork produced in the west in the same way - from left to right. (Incidentally, people normally scan information on your website or blog in a similar way (but in an 'F' shape). You can read more about this in Jakob Neilsen's eyetracking research in relation to websites).

Cultural factors: In countries where the eye is trained to read in a different way (eg right to left) I assume that they will also tend to enter and leave a picture in a different way to 'western' eyes.

How to create and design a focal point

Leading the viewer's eye to the centre of interest can be achieved in a number of ways.

Greg Albert also feels that an artist needs to attract the mind of a viewer. He suggests the use of dominant features which he calls compositional 'magnets' - something that provides an "irresistable attraction that pulls the viewer in".

He also defines the focal point and centre of interest as follows
Magnets for the viewer are of two types: a focal point and a centre of interest. The focal point of a painting is the spot that attracts the eye of the viewer because it is visually appealing. The centre of interest is the spot that attracts the mind of the viewer because it is intellectually appealing.
Greg Albert - The simple secret to better painting - Pleasing the eye
Here are some of the ways to attract the eye and the mind.
  • use the principle of the 'divine proportion' - a 'natural' mathematical ratio exists which is sometimes referred to as the 'divine proportion', 'golden section' or 'rule of thirds'. Use this to find the 'sweet spots' in the picture (not to be confused with the place your the tennis raquet which makes a return a winner - which is also mathematically determined!). This will be the subject of a future post in this project
  • introduce a dominant feature - use the design principle of 'dominance' to emphasise one of the elements eg. colour, size, shape, mark, etc. Ways in which you can do this are indicated below.
  • use a high degree of contrast. Consider this in terms of the elements of design - I'll use the same order as in the blog post last week
    • in tone - eg. where the 'darkest dark' is next to the 'lightest light'
    • in colour - eg. complementary colours - which are opposites on the colour wheel. This is one of the reasons why artist often choose a palette for a painting which features a complemetary contrast of some sort.
    • in luminescence - This is a variation of colour and tone eg where a light source seems to have a different quality. It explains why people like looking at sunsets. Muted colours/tones contrast with light/bright colour. Similarly in a picture full of bright colours, your eye will look for the quiet spot where it can take a rest.
    • in form or shape - eg. within a picture of circular or speherical objects a square/cube instantly stands out. This uses the design principles of repetition and variety.
    • in size - eg. where a very large object is next to a much smaller object
    • in space - eg. where two or more objects are closest together - or furthest apart. You always notice the gap in a sequence or when a part of an ordered sequence or a recognizable pattern doesn't quite fit with the rest. I've always found that patterns in the landscape which exist but are underplayed can often be very helpful in leading the eye but without shouting 'follow the pattern'. Try thinking of furrows in fields or ruts in paths or lines on a road.
    • in texture - juxtapositions of different textures draw the eye - eg. shiny (glass) and matt (pottery), solid (rocks) and liquid (sea)
  • introduce 'symbols' which viewers will instantly recognise and/or will want to try and relate to in some way.
    • viewers are naturally drawn to people in general and their faces in particular. For example, adding a small person into a large landscape instantly creates a focal point for the landscape. Your brain automatically scans a portrait for the same sort of visual clues about a person that you would do when meeting somebody in real life. Eyes, mouth, facial expression and how the head is held all provide important clues.
    • numbers also hold an attraction for the eye
    • symbols - icons or signs - which usually tell you what to do - eg a an arrow pointing to an object generally makes your eye follow where it is pointing. An arrow like shape eg a positive shape (a triangle) or negative shape (eg the crossing of two diagonals) works in the same sort of way.
  • Use line - to lead the eye in and around a flat artwork. For example, lines which follow the natural tracking path of the eye help to lead an eye in. By way of contrast, lines which act as shapes which cross the path of the eye effectively act as 'blocks' to the eye moving on. Somehow a line (eg a path in a landscape) which originates in the bottom left feels more comfortable than one starting at the bottom right.
Aids which help to find or create a focal point

Aids exist which can help you to find a focal point within a visual plane.

These include the following tools. Your individual preferences will probably determine which one(s) work best for you. You may like all or none!
  • a viewfinder - you can see the one I use from time to time in the 'drawing aids' section on the 'art materials' page of my website.
  • A camera's viewfinder can be used in much the same way - although you have to mentally insert the third lines. I sometimes take photos and then study them in the screen to see what the look as 'thumbnails'
  • A mirror can be used to look at a view or a composition in reverse. It's often a very neat and simple way of working out whether or not you can clearly see a focal point
  • tools to find and assess value and tone
    • thumbnail sketches in 3 values (or 5 values) - see Composition and Design - Resources for Artists for tips on how to do this as the blog post about how to do this comes later!
    • Use the Notan approach to focus on values and the impact of positive and negative shapes with different values. You can learn a little more and also see how I worked with value studies last year in Learning about Notan #1, #2 and #3.
    • reducing a digital image of your work down to a thumbnail size often provides a check of whether the value pattern is registering
    • converting a digital image to greyscale values also helps to identify whether the focal point is lost when you do this
    • Artellmedia provide a software programme called Artworks Basic - which seeks to aid composition. I'd show you a screenshot but having just upgraded to Vista when I got the new laptop I'm not sure whether it's compatible or whether they've got the upgrade ready - so I'll get back to you on that one. I'll also be referring to it again when writing about the 'rule of thirds'. One of the useful things it does is to reduce colours to mono and then into value gradations.
    • Adobe Photoshop Elements enables you to reduce a reference photo (or a scan of your work so far) to up to 8 values using the cutout tool. This is what I've been using for my notan work - and the blog post on that will follow very soon! I've been using it since version 3 and I'm now on version 6!
A checklist for finding and creating a focal point

I'm also intending to create a composition checklist. It's in draft at the moment and the short form, when completed, will be available to download for free as a pdf file from my website. I'm also investigating an e-publication for the more detailed versions. I'll come back and update this post when I've got that aspect progressed further.

Sharing about your own experinces can be very helpful to others so please do comment about what you find most useful.

Also, if you'd like to identify any omissions (I just know I'm going to have left out something really obvious!) or additions please use the comments facility.

All artwork copyright Katherine Tyrrell - all rights reserved.



  1. The figure on the top reminds me there was a whole one hour documentary I had seen on aesthetics on television which centred around this concept. What was your reference for this figure? Thanks for posting this. This year first thing I want to learn is composition.

  2. It's the graphical version of the divine proportion ratio or golden section. I'll explain more in the post about it - which has still to be drafted.

  3. Hi again :)

    I've given your blog address to my students to study the composition articles in particular - so hopefully you'll gain a few more readers to add to your wide readership :) This has been a great series

    Not long til the David Prentice exhibtion now :) I hope we have better weather this time! If there is something good on in Stow we could maybe get there as well?

  4. Your series on composition is really great. I've put a link to it in a post in my blog. Thank you for sorting out an extremely complicated subject.


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.