There is a very long story behind this painting, much too long to recount here. Suffice it to say that this painting came about as I practiced mixing colors on my palette. I practiced, too, the idea of painting from the heart. I loved the colors I had made. I loved sweeping them across my canvas. I loved the result.
Quite simply, I loved everything about this painting.
I quickly gave it the title Red Sky, thinking of the old weather-words my grandfather taught me:
Red sky at morning
All sailors take warning.
Red sky at night
Is a sailor’s delight.
Within minutes of posting the picture, a group member told me that while the colors were serene and harmonious and the painting itself was beautiful, it lacked any center of interest or focal point.
Shortly afterward, another group member agreed that the painting was nice, but suggested that I consider adding something to lead the viewer’s eyes into the picture.
Suddenly I was looking at my lovely painting from a different perspective, not through the eyes of a happy artist but through those of an objective viewer.
Maybe I don’t take criticism well, or maybe I don’t really understand the concept of focal point. Either way, I felt a keen sense of disappointment. I did go back to the easel and added in a bit of a pathway, something that would lead the viewer’s eyes, I hoped. I didn’t do much, really. In my heart, I still liked the painting. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that no one else seemed to think much of it.
Note: It’s interesting to see how our minds can and will filter out anything positive and focus solely on what we perceive as negative. I ignored the words harmonious, beautiful, serene, and thought only about my dreadful lack of a focal point!
This exchange of comments opened up a whole realm of questions for me. My initial reply was that I was considering the entire sky as a focal point, but I felt that my answer was a bit inadequate. All the while my mind was thinking, I know I’ve seen many paintings of skies that focus on colors and clouds. What’s wrong with mine?
I next considered calling the piece a bit of abstract expressionism, but then I stopped. Do abstractions require focal points, too? I wasn’t sure. In fact, after wrestling around with this idea for a time, I was ready to admit defeat and declare that I had no idea what a focal point was, whether a painting needed one or not, and if I didn’t have one, what could I do about it?
Essentially, I think we all know the meaning of a focal point. The term defines itself. It’s a point in a painting where we naturally focus our attention. That’s simple enough, but when we get more technical we have to define point and sometimes that’s not easy to do.
A point can be a single object, a stroke of color, an area of interest, or, yes, even an entire painting. Actually, paintings may include several focal points — although one should be stronger than the others. It’s fine, as well, to forget about putting a focal point in a painting, especially with landscapes.
This last piece of information comes from Johannes Vloothuis, author of Landscape Painting Essentials. He explains:
“The artist should not feel boxed in to stereotype his paintings. If you create a linear movement that will zag-zig the viewer throughout the painting, eventually to take them all the way to the back, you can skip the focal point.”
After reading that, I felt somewhat justified in my adoration of my Red Sky painting. Another viewer from the Facebook group noted the smooth brushstrokes and called the painting stunning.
Still, I’m left to wonder. Am I right to justify what I’ve done and let it go, or could I have made a stronger, better composition by adding a focal point? Are colors alone enough to attract a viewer’s attention? Or do the serene and harmonious colors just allow the viewer to move on to something more note-worthy?
In researching the topic, I came across these interesting articles about focal points and how we can use them — or not — in our paintings:
I now have a better understanding of what a focal point in art really is — and what it’s not. Primarily it’s an aspect of the painting that catches a viewer’s eye. It may be an area of high contrast in color or value, it may be a highly-detailed area or a place with hard edges, it may be an area with lots of brushstrokes or texture, it may be an area with predominantly warm colors, or it may be an object, a person, or an animal.
Perhaps instead of fretting too much over focal points and how to create them, it’s better to understand their purpose. We want to catch the viewer’s eye, and then, we want to direct the viewer’s eye to move through the painting. We do this not only through the use of a single focal point but with compositions that invite the viewer’s eye to travel through the painting, taking it all in, stopping here and there, and most of all, enjoying the experience.
As with so many other things in art, we can get bogged down, I think, with technical terms. Ultimately viewers will judge our work on their overall perception. Do they like what they see? That’s what matters to a viewer, and I suppose that’s what should matter most to us, as artists.
In the end, I still love Red Sky, but in the future, I may be a bit more aware of how my paintings will be viewed by others.
— THIS DISCUSSION CONTINUES TOMORROW —