How do we find that sweet spot in painting? Indeed, the focal point is crucial in any composition. I would call this the ‘sweet spot’ of painting. But focal point is not the only one thing that makes a painting.
First, how do we identify focal points? How do you find it? How would you create it? To answer that question, we must look at some fundamentals.
The Rule of Thirds
In order to design a composition, we must use the best elements of composition. I call these ‘visual elements’. One of the simplest visual element is shapes and how they relate to one another. Let’s take a simple photo. We all know how to apply the rule of thirds. Where these lines intersect is considered ‘focal areas’ that are pleasing to the eye and allow the composition (in the example of a photo below) to flow.
However, in this example, all 9 shapes or boxes are exactly the same. If we skew these lines a bit, the boxes are now different shapes and dimensions. This can also add interest. Symmetry is fine in the real world, but in abstract painting, we want dissimilarity.
One of the biggest mistakes in a painting would be to center the focal point right smack in the middle of your painting. In the example above, the focal point is the tree and how it contrasts with the light along the horizon. You can also see that the horizon line is in the lower third of this photograph and is also contrasted sharply against the lighter sky. This is called value contrast and we will discuss this in detail later.
In this example, which would loosely be considered a landscape, the horizon line should ideally not be placed in the middle, but rather along the upper or lower third, or some variation, of the painting.
In the example above, the focal point is in the lower third quadrant of this photo after applying the rule of thirds. Of course, the focal point can ideally be placed in any of these quadrants.
Let’s look at a variation using the rule of thirds to place our focal points. Again if we take a picture and divide it into 9 parts (rule of thirds) and then skew the lines, the focal points will move slightly, but what’s interesting is the relationships of the boxes change.
As described in this short video below, if your painting is not well designed, even if you have great technique, the painting will not be as strong.
Another visual element that will improve a painting is using shapes as a focal point. Simply put, if we take different shapes in an area of focal point, the contrast of large, intermediate and small shapes will lead your eye to this point. Contrasting sizes and shapes in a painting will lead your eye into a work. The shapes should contrast and also connect. Connecting your shapes will contrast your work and allow the eye to travel between shapes. Everything else in the painting should be secondary to a primary focal point and support the focal point.
Chen Chung-Wei describes this beautifully in a post by Stephen Berry describing this concept in one of his workshops. Here , he discusses the importance of ‘applied composition’ by making shapes in the composition different sizes and then connecting shapes, but jumping them around throughout the composition taking your eye to different areas of the composition. A simple example would be taking a major shape, then connect them with minor shapes, angles of interest and abstract lines. You can link to that article here.
Another visual element that must be maintained in a good composition is value. Value is simply the lights, midtones and darks in a painting and how they relate to one another.
In a recent workshop with Vladislav Yeliseyev, (see post here) he used contrast on the first day to show that any painting can be a good painting when the proper value or tone is applied. In fact, a good tonal ‘sketch’ will stand on its own with a single color. He discussed how important it was to take the time to make that value sketch prior to any painting. It is a crucial part of the composition process for him and many other world class artists.
The best way to use value as a visual element is by contrasting light against dark or value contrast. In nature, there are no lines that separate shapes, but rather values of what is in front and behind objects in relation to the object itself. A contrast in tonal value will lead the eye and can act as a focal point in a painting. In the above example, the Ca’ D’ Zan mansion has a bright central wall contrast against the dark foliage and the overhang of the roof. By using value contrast, you can lead the eye into the painting and create an interesting focal point.
In this composition, you can see how the value contrast of the back of the boat on the left and its sail is contrast light against the dark sail and dark sail against the light sky. This is a good example of value contrast.
This painting also works (it’s one of my early works) because the shapes are somewhat different. Large boat, smaller boat, bigger boat. I have tonality with shadows from the vertical yellow posts and the boats. I have a dark contrast of the garage and sail on the large boat. The shapes are all connected (the larger boat overlaps the garage and the remaining boats are connected by shadow. It’s simple, but must be thought out.
Another point that can be made here is to not get too literal with your compositions. Do not try and compose a “photograph” of what you see, but rather arrange objects so they interact and work together. Use vertical, diagonal and horizontal lines to ‘connect’ shapes. Simplify. It’s a good lesson in composition.
I’ve only been painting 9 months now, but if you get these concepts down early, I think the rest will probably take care of itself. At this stage of my painting, I’m still having to consciously think of many of these elements as I plan a painting. Again, by using these elements in your planning and .composition, you are destined to create something wonderful! Not only will the composition work, but you now have the tools to tell a story with your composition.