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Focal Point in Painting

Updated on March 11, 2015
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5 Tips to Enhance Your Focal Point

The focal point of any painting is the point where you want to draw the eyes of the observer. It is the center of interest.

Although the focal point definition implies that it is one point or object in the painting, in some landscapes, there is not one specific spot. Some landscapes have several points of interest and it is important that a path leads the viewer into the depths and around the painting to those many places. The path should be slow moving so the viewer can appreciate each place at his leisure.

There are specific techniques used by artists to bring the attention of the viewer to these points and I'll demonstrate 5 of them for you in this Lens.

Please respect my copyright on this painting and all portions of it. This is all my original work. Thank you.

rule of thirds
rule of thirds | Source

Rule of Thirds

The "Rule of Thirds" is a concept that has been used for centuries as a tool for helping develop an interesting composition. The canvas is divided into 9 equal sections. You can see that there are 4 points where the lines intersect.

These points are your best choices for where you want to place your focal point.

In this example, I am going to paint a red barn on a rolling hillside. I have done a rough sketch to establish the positioning of the focal point and the surround foreground and background.

There are several reasons why I have chosen the left lower point to place the barn.

Rule of Thirds Preference

Which cross point of the Rule of Thirds do you use most frequently?

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Planning Your Thirds

  • I want the barn to be facing into the painting.
  • The path leading into the painting and foreground detail will take up the lower one third.
  • The barn, the valley and the base of the mountains will fill the center third, helping the viewer to have a better sense of distance between the focal point and the background.
  • The top third is reserved for the distant mountains and partially-cloudy sky which will help justify the reason that there is a variety of brightness from sun across the landscape.

I could have chosen the upper left if I wanted more focus on the path leading up to the barn to make it feel set back more. In that case, the sky would be minimized.

If I had chosen either of the right points, I would have had to turn the building around. You never want the focal point facing out of the painting.

path
path | Source

Follow the Path

Lead the viewers into the painting with a visual path. Guide them along in a gentle, meandering fashion so they can enjoy the scenery along the way.

Notice that it is not only the road that is the path, but also the fence and subtle rows of greenery in the fields on either side.

As I mentioned in the introduction, do not rush the viewer. Long, strong vertical or horizontal lines will force the viewer to run through the painting and right out of the top or side of it.

The horizontal lines of the barn are broken up by staggering them.

In the picture below, you can see how the tall silo ends at the slope of the mountain which then circles the viewer back round to the barn.

Keeping Your Viewer in

It is also important to keep the viewers within the painting, guiding them back to the focal point.

The slopes of the landscape do this by allowing the viewer to browse through the hills and valleys of the background, while redirecting their focus back to the barn in a gentle manner.

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Effects of Lighting

Lighting plays an important part in directing people to the center of focus.

By changing the tonal values of different areas, you can shift more attention to the focal point.

If the sky has the same value as the barn, it competes with the barn.

Slightly darkening the value of the sky reduces the competition.

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Varying Lighting

Varying lighting such as those seen by shadowing also adds drama, depth and focal direction.

Increased shadowing around the periphery accents the barn and field closest to the focal point.

More darkening along the edge and above the barn gives an appearance of shadows from the clouds while helping to draw the eye of the viewer in toward the focal point, the barn.


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Focus

If you think about how your eyes see, rather than how a camera records a scene, you will realize that it is only the center of what you are looking at that is in focus. The periphery is less detailed and/or some what blurred.

There are two components of this as it relates to painting a landscape.

The first has to do with detail.

The rule is:

Around the periphery of the painting, do not have detailed objects, bright colors or values or anything that will distract the eye from the center of focus. One exception to this might be in the foreground where you may have more detail, but keep it simple.

You can see from the picture that I have done this. Even though I have included shrubs on the right, They are less detailed and the lines are softer in the more distant tree.

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The second has to do with blurring the edges.

This will further distract the eye from the periphery.

You can see in the picture how I blurred the trees on the right edge and the mountains above them. I blurred the edges all around with the exception of the foreground.

I feel that the foreground is an important part of the path leading into the painting. Blurring it would be like putting a barrier up in front of the path.

In life I would focus on the start of the road and then proceed along the path to the point of interest. If the start was blurry or difficult to get over such as a pile of rocks being in the way, I would be distract from my goal and less comfortable meandering through the scene.

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Balance

Just like anything in life, paintings need to be in balance. If not, things become stressful, rather than enjoyable.

Divide your painting in half and look to see if each side carries about the same weight. Look at darks and lights, value masses and detail.

Getting Back in Balance

In my first version, the painting felt very out of balance.

Karen Bonaker from Digital Art Academy, suggested that I move the smaller building to in front of the larger barn to give more depth.

I did that but then still felt something was needed in the right lower third to balance the painting, especially since I had moved the small building further to the center.

Red Barn Hillside Farm
Red Barn Hillside Farm | Source

Finished Painting

It is hard to describe, but as soon as I added the trees in the right lower half of the painting, everything now felt in balance.

See if you can identify those elements that make the painting balanced. Remember, you are looking for darks and lights, value masses and detail.

Red Barn Hillside Farm

Painting Better Landscapes

Margaret Kessler is one of my favorite authors in my reference library. "Painting Better Landscapes" gives ideas for improving focus, composition, identifying problem areas and making corrections.

Painting the Impressionist Landscape

This impressionist landscape book guides you through an understanding of color and light, so you can effectively use them in your landscape paintings.

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      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      This is wonderful info. Everything here also applies to photography. Thank you for publishing this lens.

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