How to Create a Strong Focal Point in a Painting - The making of 'A Sense of Belonging'

One of the things I wanted to work on after the completion of my last series of paintings, 'The Seven Gates', was really emphasising the focal point of my paintings. So for the first painting in my new series, 'Guardians', this is what I concentrated on.

You now have two options: watch the video below to find out how to create a strong focal point or continue reading this post which gives the same information but you get to read it at your leisure.

Okay, you've decided to read on. Excellent! Let's have a look at the six main areas I worked on to really show off my focal point:

  1. Position

  2. Lead-in lines

  3. Warm/Cold colours

  4. Saturation

  5. Level of Detail

  6. Contrast

Let's have a quick look at the theory.

Position

The Rule of Thirds is a simple rule used to help compose an image. Simply divide the canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The four places where the lines intersect are visually pleasing places to put a focal point of a painting.

Lead-in Lines

Lead-in lines are used to direct the viewer's eye to the focal point. They are generally lines that start at or near the edge of the canvas and go towards the main focal point. A road winding its way towards a house is a good example of the use of lead-in lines.

Warm/Cold Colours

Choosing colours carefully can also help in focusing the viewer's attention. Cold colours tend to recede into the background whereas warm colours push themselves to the front and shout out, "Look at me!" in a big booming voice. Look at the example below. Which flower is supposed to be the focal point?

It also helps that the warm colour has a cold background to really push it forwards.

Saturation

Strong saturated colours draw the attention while muted colours recede into the background. Using saturated colours on the focal point help to really show it off. Compare these two flowers:

Level of Detail

Another way to show off your focal point is to add more detail into it than the rest of the image. Imagine taking a photo of someone. The focus is on the person's eyes making them really sharp and detailed. The background will naturally blur as it's out of focus.

Contrast

Our eyes are naturally drawn to areas of high contrast within an image (the difference between the lights and darks). This can be used to our advantage. Try squinting at the image below and notice how the flower in the top left-hand corner still stands out.

So these are the things to take into account when planning a composition. Now let's have a look at this in practise.

Here's my latest painting, 'A Sense of Belonging'. In the next section of this post I'll take you through my thought processes as I planned this image.

This is the original drawing for the painting. This in itself took a long time to produce. I had to take my initial idea of belonging to a group and create a character (or characters) from this. If you're familiar with the way I work with free association then skip the next paragraph. If not continue reading.

I wrote down the central idea at the top of a piece of paper and then used free association (the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any necessary logical connection) to derive a list of words. I tried not to think about why I’d chosen these words, I just put them down and considered the implications later. Then I looked at this first list and saw which word(s) jumped out at me. Again, I didn’t think why, I just went with it. I chose one of these words, started a new list and then repeated the free association. Making lists for each of the words that jumped out was time-consuming but it generated a lot of ideas. Finally I repeated this whole process a third time, seeing which words jumped out and made new lists from them. I did it three times because I think that this stops me from skittering about on the surface and forces me to delve deeper. Many times I will reach one of the third level lists, a word will spring from my mind and I’ll think ah, that’s what this is all about. Using all of the lists, I looked for suitable words to mould the direction of the painting. Some of the words that hit me in this process were 'gears', 'particles', 'new links' and 'warmth'. With these words and others in mind I designed the main character.

To help me design the creatures I made a couple of models:

This all fed into my drawing. My first consideration was the position of my focal point. I decided that the main creature would be the one on the left looking at the viewer. So I positioned this on the upper left intersection of the thirds lines.

The pair of cogs meeting was a secondary focus so I put them on the lower right intersection.

The other aspect of composition I'd thought about were the lead-in lines. The tentacles were perfect for this as they would lead the viewer's eye directly to the face of the main character. The next stage of planning was colour. This was particularly exciting because my last series primarily consisted of greys.

I decided to use warm colours for the creatures and cool blues for the background. This helped to make the creatures stand out from the background. You can see from my colour plan below that the main creature is almost completely surrounded by blue, pushing it out towards the viewer. You'll also notice that I've made the focal point the most saturated part of the image. Again, this is a subliminal message to the viewer that this is the focal point.

Now let's look at the painting process.

My first task was to roughly block out the image so it looked roughly like my colour plan above. Then I put a lot of time into refining the image. I started in the far distance painting the sky and hills. I used just the three primary colours and white for this part of the painting. The important factor was that I used three primary colours that tended towards cooler hues. This is very subtle but it helped me to achieve two goals:

  1. The warm focal point will really stand out against the background.

  2. Using cooler hues creates a sense of distance.

The other thing that you'll notice, especially if you squint at this image, is that the contrast is very low. The hills originally had even less contrast but it made them look as though they were 30 miles away so I had to gradually increase the darkness of the dark tones until the illusion of distance was correct.

The sky and hills were painted pretty quickly. Detail wasn't needed in this area and I actively blurred parts of this area to make it appear out of focus.

My next job when refining was to get the characters looking right. I worked on this secondary character first, almost as a test for the main character. I added a lot of detail into this creature including the stitches and tiny hairs to represent the fur. These foreground characters were still painted with three primary colours (and white) but I switched to three warm primary colours. This again would help the main characters stand out against the cool background. Now came a tricky balancing act. I had to make the shadows on this character dark but not as dark as the main character. Remember I need the contrast to be the highest on the focal point. There is only a slight difference in the finished painting but it is there. Also to reduce the contrast slightly I added a thin yellow wash over the highlight in the eye. Once I was happy with this creature I moved on to the main focal point.

On this main creature I used my darkest black. I don't use black paint. I mix my blacks from the three primaries. I use a lot of blue, a bit of red and a tiny bit of yellow. How's that for a specific recipe? It's hard to give specific ratios because it depends on the paints used. But the process I use is to mix a very dark purple and then add a tiny amount of yellow to make it a very dark grey. In the centre of the eye I've got this black right next to a spot of pure white, the highest level of contrast within any part of the image.

Originally the creature on the right had yellow tentacles and the main one had orange ones. The problem was that the yellow tentacles had a higher level of contrast which made the secondary creature look like the focal point. A bit of repainting later and the main creature was sporting some dandy yellow tentacles.

You'll notice that the saturation on the face of the creature is very strong. There's very little grey here! I had to keep refining this throughout the painting process. If the saturation wasn't quite strong enough I added some thin washes of colour to give it a boost. It was subtle but incredibly important in focusing the viewer's attention.

Again I had to be subtle but this main creature has slightly more detail than the secondary creature. I even added tiny shadows where the stitches enter the fur. I spent a lot of time on this creature.

A lot.

Once I'd got the main creature looking good, I then had to go back and tackle the background creatures.

This was pretty tricky. To create a convincing sense of depth in the image I had to gradually reduce the saturation, contrast and level of detail as I went further back into the image. The other issue to bear in mind is that any creatures that were on the same plane had to have the same saturation, contrast and level of detail to show that they on the same plane. This also applied to the hills which I was constantly tweaking to fit in with the creatures level with them. What made it even harder was that there were so many different levels of creatures, as can be seen in this image.

One problem I had in creating this painting was making sure that the creatures actually sat in the environment rather than looking as though they were floating in space.

I tackled this in three ways:

  1. I put some sections of the tentacles below the water line. In the image above the left half of the large yellow tentacle is in the water and has a dark shadow under it. The right half is out of the water and has reflected green light from the water coming up under its lower edge.

  2. I added reflections that matched the tentacles.

  3. As a final touch I added some dripping water to the underside of the tentacles as if they've just come out of the water. You can even see where the drops hit the water in the lower right hand corner of the image above.

All of this adds up to the final image:

I think you'll agree that the main focus is definitely on the creature on the left. I used a lot of subtle techniques but it all works together to create the desired effect. There is another way that I focused the viewer's attention but I'll leave that up to you to work out. You can leave me your thoughts in the box at the bottom of this post.

If you've got the time to watch it the video below contains more detail on the subject of creating a strong focal point and also looks at painting water and creating fur textures.

In my next post I'll look at the meaning behind this painting. See you then!

Signed Limited Edition Prints of 'A Sense of Belonging' are available from my website.

All images are printed at 1440 dpi on a heavy-duty textured paper for sharp, detailed, vibrant prints.

Sales help me to continue spending time creating this tutorial and the above video for you dear reader.

If you've got any questions or comments please leave them in the box below and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

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