Beginner Oil: Determining the focal point of a painting

7 Mar 2008

0710comp4_600x438 Deciding where to place the elements in a painting can be difficult, but the decisions are crucial to creating a successful piece.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Deciding where to place the elements in a painting can be difficult, but the decisions are crucial to creating a successful piece. When a composition is done well, it may go unnoticed; however, a poorly composed piece instantly strikes the viewer’s eye as awkward. The goal of composition is to direct the viewer’s eye through a painting and lead them toward what the artist thinks is important. Although there is no single right way to do this, there are specific devices one can employ to draw a viewer’s eye to a point of interest, as well as to create the illusion of objects, people, and places existing in tangible space. Here, we list some of the tools at an artist’s disposal that will aid in influencing and directing the viewer.

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A proportion finder, viewfinder,
and anglefinder developed by
artist-instruction Brian Bomeisler
for his beginning students.

Many beginning painters tend to devote their energy to drawing and painting objects accurately, and find it difficult to create a strong composition. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the possibilities one discovers in the landscape,” says artist-instructor James Sulkowski, who teaches plein air workshops to help students overcome the fear of decision-making. Some artist-instructors suggest using a viewfinder, which many artists employ when faced with a large scene. One can purchase a viewfinder at any art supply store, or make a simple one out of cardboard. Regardless of the material, it serves the same purpose: a viewfinder allows an artist to isolate the key elements of a scene, as well as view multiple compositions before committing one to paper. When faced with a large scene, it is helpful to ask several questions. Why do I want to paint this scene? What initially attracted me to it? What content is needed to attract the viewer and make them feel what I feel? As these questions are answered, it becomes clear that a given scene is not set in stone, even if the subject is a mountain range. An artist can alter the scene to suit the emotions or message he or she seeks to share with the viewer. A landscape or still life is meant to spark the imagination and excite the senses; it should be an image that is begging to be painted or drawn. If a certain area or image is not appealing, change locations or choose alternate subjects. Or, one could crop a scene tightly and focus on minute details that often go unnoticed in a large scene.

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An Experiment on a Bird
in an Air Pump

by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768,
oil, 72 x 96. Collection
the National Gallery, London, England.
Derby's painting divided
according to the rule
of thirds. Notice that the
scientist and the young
girl are placed at points
of intersection.

Sulkowski recommends that students determine the focal point before applying the brush to the canvas. “No matter what the circumstances, an artist needs to identify the focal point of his or her painting and then structure the painting process so that the viewer immediately understands the center of interest. When painting en plein air, it is very important to keep that focus in mind so time and energy aren’t wasted on elaborating areas of the canvas that are of secondary importance.” The same also holds true when painting a still life.

Nashville artist-instructor Gayle Levée has her workshop students spend hours arranging elements to create the best composition. She advises that they initially put together more objects than they think they’ll need, and then choose one as the focal point. “Place that object first, and then place the supporting pieces around it,” she suggests. When painting a still life, Levée begins with the focal point, and makes measurements on the canvas proportional to the center of interest.

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Reflections in Gold
by Gayle Levée, 2007, oil, 16 x 20.
Collection Karl T. Dennis.

In her painting Reflections in Gold, Levée employs the rule of thirds to draw the viewer’s eye to the vase and fruit (view a demonstration of the piece). This is one of several devices that can draw the viewer’s eye to a center of interest. This rule, employed in painting and photography, is meant to yield a more aesthetically pleasing composition. It advises that artists divide a canvas into three sections both horizontally and vertically, and place the center of interest at a point of intersection, or in the upper or lower third of the frame. By doing so, the focal point is taken out of the “dead center” of the canvas, and the viewer’s eye is led across the entire space. This can be seen in Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, in which he places the figures in the upper and lower thirds, as well as in the left and right thirds of the canvas.

Derby also uses light to create areas of high contrast, which naturally attract the eye. He creates a single light source, which emanates from the center but does not illuminate all the figures equally. The viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn to the figures that are most brightly lit, and those in shadow gaze in the same direction, which refocuses the viewer’s attention. While the young woman on the left looks towards the canvas edge at her companion, his gaze toward her prevents the viewer’s eye from wandering off the canvas. The old man to the left of the center looks outward, which serves to create the illusion of a much larger space, and possibly unseen participants. The moon in the upper right corner offers an additional light source, and creates an ominous tone that sets a mood for the viewer. It is not by any means the most important element in the piece, but it is vital for the emotion it evokes, and as such, Derby draws the viewer’s eye to it by making it bright in comparison to the dark clouds surrounding it and the shadowy interior it illuminates.

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Avenue l'Opera
by Camille Pissarro, 1898, oil.
Private collection.

Many landscape painters use leading lines to direct the viewer’s gaze. This is often seen in the form of lakes, rivers, streams, fences, and roads. In these instances, the illusion of three-dimensional space is created by the use of perspective. As the objects recede into view, they naturally become narrower, and the viewer follows the path created as depth increases. For instance, in Camille Pissarro’s Avenue l’Opera: Morning Sunshine, the viewer’s eye is above ground level, taking in the scene. However, we are drawn into the distance by the receding path. Our gaze is further echoed by the large buildings on either side that follow the path of the road. We also see the rule of thirds at work, as the sky occupies the upper third of the frame, and the fountains are on both sides. This leaves the emptiest space in the center, though it is is clearly occupied—both by the passersby and by the viewer, who looks in this direction.

By creating areas of sharp contrast and bright light, as well as positioning the points of interest asymmetrically, the artist can subtly and powerfully direct a viewer’s gaze. Once a focal point is established, determining the emotions or message it evokes will help one decide which of the aforementioned tools will most effectively tell a clear and evocative visual story.

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.


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