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Focal Points

Make them work for you

Somewhere in every painting there is a point of maximum tonal contrast. This point shouldn’t occur by accident, but should be carefully placed to work as a focal point for the painting.


Because our eyes are more receptive to tonal contrast than any other form of contrast, it is our most powerful tool in establishing  focal points in our paintings.


In this article we are going to examine where, why and how to establish focal points in our work.

Below is an interesting subject but, if we are not careful, we could end up with two conflicting focal points.


By increasing tonal contrast and exaggerating color and detail in one window we create a strong focal point and relegate the right hand window to a supporting role.

Watercolor painting demonstrating how to establish a focal point in a symetrical subject.



What Should Be Our Focal Point ?

Our first consideration should be what part of our subject we want to focus on or draw attention to. This can be confusing, but if the painting is to succeed, a decision must be made before we start to paint.


Look for areas of interest in your subject. There are some things we are always drawn to. Figures in a painting, contrasting shapes, contrasting size, junctions of major lines – all these things demand attention, so to make a painting work they should be combined in one area for a focal point. If they are scattered in areas other than where we want the focal point they should be eliminated or downplayed

The contrasting warm figures in this otherwise cool painting make a strong focal point. The horizontal band of warm color intersected by the diagonal line at the trailing edge of the main sail encourage the eye back to the focal point.

What Makes a Focal Point?

No matter what you choose to be your focal point there are a number things to keep in mind to make that area of interest the focus of your painting. Our main tool in creating a focal point is tonal contrast.


The lightest light and darkest dark in our painting should be placed next to one another to establish a focal point.


Contrasting color is the next most noticeable element we can use. If your painting has a dominant warm overall color a cool accent will draw attention to the focal point and vice versa.




Where should we put focal points?

Unless you are after a formal, static composition, keep the focal point away from the center of the painting (both vertically and horizontal).


The rule of thirds is a pretty safe option, but experiment with pushing the focal point closer to the edge if you want to create an uneasiness in your painting or closer to the middle if you want the painting to be simple, formal and monumental.


The rule of thirds works because it feels more visually comfortable to have a space for the eye to move to after looking at the focal point.

Placing this chicken’s head in the middle of the painting makes him look serious and monumental. The loose, splattered lead up to the chicken’s head encourages the eye up to the focal point in the top third of the painting.

Sketch showing central focal point

With a focal point in the centre we are not encouraged to look left, right, up or down. Our attention is locked on the focal point.

Sketch showing focal point moved to the left.

Shifting the focal point to the left provides breathing space and encourages the eye to move from the focal point to the area on the right.

Sketch showing a focal point moved to the left and down.

Moving the focal point to the left and down encourages visual movement to the right and up. This placement also feels more natural as random placement is less likely to occur centrally.

Dominant and supporting Focal Points

A painting with just a single point of interest can be difficult to look at. The eye should be able to wander away from the main focal point to less demanding points of interest then be led back to the main point of interest.


Always try and reinforce your main focal point with other, less demanding points of interest.

Tonal contrast, a shift to warm colors and contrasting geometric shapes cause this light house to work as the focal point. The suggested evidence of an old jetty and decaying piers along to the right serve as a secondary, supporting focal point.


Shifting Focal Points

As you work on a painting keep an eye on where attention is being drawn. Sometimes, even after lots of careful planning, gremlins can creep in and cause the focal point to drift away from where it should be.


A careless mark or contrast in the wrong place can upset the best intentions. Usually these problems can be rectified by the addition of a counteracting strong mark, splash of color or increase in contrast.

The important thing is to constantly be on the look out for these problems. Keeping your painting clear of brushes, sketches, photographs etc. helps make these problems more obvious.


If your work is taped to a backing board, keep the tape and board reasonably clean. A dark patch of pigment around the edge can really throw your judgement.

Black or white electrical tape can be cut up and used to try out options before making adjustments. It is amazing the impact a few small marks can make to shift a focal point.

The focal point in this painting is getting too close to the bottom edge.

Watercolor showing how focal points can be shifted.




Black electrical tape cut and applied to the top of the door shows how the focal area can be shifted with a few simple marks. Once you are happy with the adjustment it is a simple matter to remove the tape and apply paint to the area to correct the painting.

Focal Point Distractions

If our focal point is to hold the viewers attention we have to minimize distractions. The two most common distractions to watch for are intrusive patches of white paper scattered throughout the painting and disjointed, contrasting dark marks that make the painting appear busy and confused.


Patches of white paper can be simply washed over with a suitable color. Disjointed darks can be washed back or linked to form a simple, less confusing mass.

Watch out for these distracting little patches around the edges of your painting, where the wash doesn’t quite cover the paper.

Watercolor painting showing intrusions causing focal point distraction.




Obscure Focal Points

Some subjects don’t have an obvious focal point, so a decision has to be made and the painting built around that decision.


By increasing tonal contrast, color intensity and detail, a focal point is established. The rest of the painting is kept simple and understated with small details being added to balance the focal point.

A focal point should be your first consideration when you rough out a thumbnail sketch prior to starting a painting. The painting should be constructed around this area of interest. Your darkest dark and lightest light should occur in this area, as should your strongest color contrast and most saturated colors.

Arrange lines in the painting to lead the eye into the focal point, then balance the focal point with other areas of interest, making sure these areas support, but don’t compete with the focal point.

Creating a focal point is easy, the tricky part is anchoring it in the painting and making the composition balance around that focal point. This is where planning and constant monitoring and analysing keep everything on track.

See Also:

Make Shapes Work​

Painting Composition

Author: John Lovett

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