All About Focal Points in Painting

Children looking at the focal point in a painting by Piet Mondrian.
Children captivated by an abstract painting by Piet Mondrian, with the focal point of the red square bordered by blue in the upper right hand quadrant. Santi Visalli/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Definition of Focal Point

The focal point of a painting is an area of emphasis that demands the most attention and to which the viewer's eye is drawn, pulling it into the painting. It is like the bullseye on a target, although not as overt.  It is how the artist draws attention to particular content of the painting, and is often the most important element of the painting. The focal point should be based on the artist's intent, the reason for doing the painting, so should be determined early in the process.

 

Most representational paintings have at least one focal point, but can have up to three focal points within the painting. One focal point is usually dominant. This is the focal point that is the strongest, with the greatest visual weight. The second focal point is sub-dominant, the third is subordinate. Beyond that number it can begin to get confusing. Paintings without a focal point tend not to have much variation - some are based more on pattern. For example, many of Jackson Pollock's later paintings, in which he paints with a lyrical sequence of drips, do not have a focal point.

Focal points are based on the physiology of vision, the process by which humans actually see, which allows us to focus on only one thing visually at a time. Everything else beyond the center of our cone of vision is out of focus, with soft edges, and only partially discernible.

Purpose of Focal Points

  • Focal points help to give a painting meaning and convey the intent of the artist. It is the artist's responsibility to determine what the focal point is and to manipulate the colors, values, and composition to create a focal point that adds to the meaning of the painting. It should not be left up to the viewer to guess what the focal point is. 
  •  A focal point helps to tell the viewer the story of a painting, what is important about the painting, and to give dramatic impact to a painting. 
  • Multiple focal points can lead the viewer's gaze in, through, and around the painting, providing areas for the eyes to pause for a moment, allowing time to digest the scene and contemplate the work.
  • Multiple focal points provide a rhythm to the painting.
  • There need not be a specific focal point if the subject itself is the focal point, for example in a portrait painting. In that case, eyes are often the focal point, along with a specific detail, as in Vermeer's The Girl With a Pearl Earring.  
  • Creating focal points gives you as the artist more control over how your artwork is viewed and perceived.
  • When doing a painting it helps to ask yourself three questions: Why am I doing this painting? What is it about this scene that is most important to me? What is the effect that I am trying to achieve? Answering these questions will help you define and maintain your focal point. It is often worthwhile returning to these questions while you paint.

How to Create Focal Points

  • The elements and principles of design work together to help create and define the focal point. Any of the elements of art -  line, shape, color, value, form, texture, and space - can contribute to defining the focal point in conjunction with the principles of art - balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, unity/variety. 
  • Composition, how the elements and principles of art work together to form the structure of the painting, is important in manipulating the viewer's gaze around the painting. The composition can help define the focal point and a focal point can strengthen the composition. They work interdependently to create visual weight.
  • Actual and implied lines can direct the viewer's gaze to the focal point. Diagonal lines are particularly effective because they are more dynamic than vertical and horizontal lines and tend to swiftly carry the viewer's eye into the painting.
  • Lines that converge, like railroad tracks heading into the distance, will lead your eye to a focal point. 
  • Contrast is very important. The viewer's eye usually goes first to the area of greatest contrast in a painting. This is where the focal point often is. Contrast in value (dark against light) is the most noticeable, but contrast in colors, shapes, color temperature, or textures can also be distinctive and attract the viewer's eye.
  • Complementary colors will attract the viewer's gaze, particularly if they are saturated.
  • Cropping your subject as a camera does, and getting in close to it so that it becomes large and fills the canvas, emphasizes your subject and gives it visual weight, making it the focal point of your painting.
  • Framing something helps to identify it as a focal point, either in a literal frame, such as a door or window frame, or framed by tree branches or other elements.
  • Hard edges are more noticeable than soft edges.  They appear to be "in focus" rather than "out of focus." If you want to emphasize something, harden the edge; if you want to de-emphasize something, soften the edge. Hard and soft edges are also known as lost and found edges.
  • A focal point should have more detail than other elements within the painting to give it visual weight. 
  • Color temperature is important. Warm colors tend to come forward, and cool colors tend to recede. This can be used to define a focal point by creating contrast in color temperature in a painting. Yellows and reds attract the eye first. 
  • If you include people in a painting, no matter how small, they will become the focal point. 
  • Placing something unusual within a scene will make it a focal point.  For example, a single square in a pattern of circles will stand out, and vice versa; or a red mark in a field of another color. Anything that is an anomaly will stand out to the viewer's eye. 
  • Conversely, isolating something from a scene will make it a focal point. Balancing a cluster of circles in one part of a painting with a single circle in another part will make the isolated circle stand out as a focal point.
  • Anything that is not part of the area of emphasis or focal point should be painted in a manner that does not draw attention to it: softer edges, more neutral colors, less contrast. 

​Where to Locate the Focal Point

  • You generally want the focal point to be located well within the picture frame in order to bring the viewer's eye into the painting, but not necessarily right in the center, although there are times for that as well.  
  • The Rule of Thirds is a widely-used compositional guideline for locating the focal point. The focal point should be placed at one of the intersections of the grid lines of an imagined tic-tac-toe grid placed over your painting, about one-third in from any edge of the painting. Using the Rule of Thirds will assure you of a composition that is pleasing to the eye.
  • Compositional shapes within a standard rectangular format which can help you determine where to put your focal point include a triangle, an oval, a smaller rectangle, and an"s" in a vertical orientation. (1) Locating the focal point near the top right of the composition - either in the top right of the rectangle or in the top apex of the triangle, with a slight bias towards the right of the composition - is generally pleasing to viewers in Western cultures who are used to reading from left to right.  

Tips

  • One way to test where the focal point in a painting is located is to close your eyes and then to slowly open them, noticing where your eye is first drawn to in the painting.

  • To determine whether you have any elements in your painting that are distracting from the focal point, stare at the focal point for a minute and, without moving your eyes, see if there is anything else in the painting that is competing for its attention and pulling your eye towards it. If so, then either remove that element or tone it down so that it stands out less from its context. 
  • Remember to provide a place for the viewer to rest their eyes. Not all parts of the painting should be equally complex or detailed.  You want to avoid making your painting look too busy. Think about balancing negative and positive spaces
  • Don't give the viewer too much information with too much detail. Limit detail to the focal point. Let the viewer fill in part of the story. This helps to create mystery and intrigue. A focal point, or multiple focal points, should help tell the story of the painting, but not all the story. To make a great painting it is also important to engage the imagination of the viewer.

Further Reading and Viewing

How to Create Focal Points in Art (video) 

The Power to Choose Your Focal Point in Your Painting  (video) 

6 Ways to Create Emphasis in a Painting

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REFERENCES

1. Jennings, Simon, The Complete Artists Manual, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014, p. 230.

RESOURCES

Debra J. DeWitte, Ralph M. Larmann, M. Kathryn Shields, Gateways to Art: Understanding the Visual Arts, Thames & Hudson, http://wwnorton.com/college/custom/showcasesites/thgate/pdf/1.8.pdf, accessed 9/23/16.

Jennings, Simon, The Complete Artists Manual, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014.