Creating Interest through Contrast

My drawing time this morning involved a rather technical concept, that of creating interest in a drawing through the use of contrast. In today’s exercise the contrast was one of value, although there are many other forms of contrast we can use to establish a strong focal point in a drawing or painting.

The concept of focal point has been problematic for me. I’ve written before of the art education I had in school, which wasn’t really education at all. As far as I ever knew, the focal point of a drawing or painting was just the center of attention, or, that is, the subject of the drawing. If you drew a picture of a tree, the tree was the focal point. Simple enough.

But, now that I’m pursuing art a bit more seriously, I’ve learned that focal points aren’t really all that simple at all. It’s not just what we’re drawing, and it’s little wonder that I’ve always been so confused about it.

It’s true, of course, that a focal point is a center of attention, but that’s not necessarily the whole of what we’re drawing. A focal point may be only a small part of a larger subject. A painting, in fact, can have several focal points, or, in the case of a landscape painting, no focal point at all!

What’s an artist like me to do? Well, maybe getting a better understanding of the whole concept would be a good place to start. And, for me, starting from a scientific perspective makes a lot of sense.

A focal point is a point upon which we focus our sight.

That’s simple enough — for starters. Where it becomes a little more complicated with art is in the fact that we don’t want viewers to look at only one part of our drawing or painting, so a focal point, in a sense, is only a starting point. From there, we want our viewers to look at all of our work, moving their eyes from that focal point to another point and another point until they’ve taken it all in and can appreciate our creation.

Right now, that’s all I really need to know about what a focal point is. I like to think of it as an invitation to a viewer, something about my drawing or painting that says, “Come, take a look.”

So now that I have a better understanding, it’s time to learn about creating a focal point or point of interest in my work. An essential principle here is that we can create interest by the use of contrast.

The exercise I did today was based on value contrasts — strong differences between light and dark. The first step in the exercise was to sketch an outline drawing of a young woman wearing a big hat and a pair of sunglasses.

know I took a photograph of my outline drawing, but it’s nowhere to be found in my phone. Here is the outline Catherine Holmes gives in her Drawing Dimensions book:

Girl in Hat

When you see my drawing, you’ll notice that my accuracy was a little off. Since this was an exercise in shading, I didn’t correct my little errors.

The first step is creating a focal point with contrast is deciding what that point will be. For the purposes of this exercise, that decision is already made. The sunglasses will be our focal point. With that decision made, we go through a step by step process of adding value.

The first step — no idea what happened to that photo either — was to shade in the sunglasses. The second step was to add in a little basic shading on the face and hair, and then darken the value on the sunglasses. The idea, of course, is to have the sunglasses become the darkest area of the drawing.

Beginning at that point, here are the steps to completion:


Sunglasses 2
Here, I’ve darkened the shading on the sunglasses — our point of interest — and have added a bit more shading.
Sunglasses 3
Using a softer pencil, I drew in a suggestion of a reflection in the sunglasses. I also used an eraser to lighten the upper portion. A little shadow has also been added to her long hair.
Sunglasses 4
I’ve used carbon pencil to increase the contrast in the sunglasses.
Sunglasses 5
To finish the drawing, I’ve added a suggestion of texture and pattern to the hat, plus a bit of value to suggest her facial structure.

Of course, all the while I was working on this little drawing, I was thinking back to my watercolor portrait, California Girl, showing my daughter Liz on the beach soon after she and her husband moved to San Diego.

California Girl
“California Girl” – Watercolor by Judith Kraus

It’s interesting to look back now at this picture since it is so similar to today’s drawing and shading exercise. I thought I did a good job on the portrait — one of the most challenging watercolors I’d ever attempted — but, in light of today’s exercise, I can see areas that could have been better.

Did I think about focal points when I painted this? Not at all. So… out of curiosity, where do your eyes go when you see this painting? I know what I liked most about it was the pattern on the scarf, so maybe, in a way, that was a subconscious focal point. I’m still pleased with the way I painted the shadow from her hat. What stands out to me most right now, though, is that I seem to have completely forgotten the bridge of the sunglasses. How did I overlook that?

I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things from the time I painted my California Girl until today, and I really would like to think I’ve learned a little about focal points in today’s drawing practice.

Still, questions remain. The choice to make the sunglasses a focal point was decided by the book’s author. What if I’d made a different choice? What if I’d chosen to make her lips the focal point? What if I wanted to use the texture of the hat to draw in the viewer? These are possibilities the author mentions, although she doesn’t illustrate them in the book.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll try doing this drawing again, choosing a different focal point. That should be an interesting challenge.

Any thoughts about focal points? The work I’ve done today has helped me a lot, but I’m always interested in hearing ideas from other artists.






  1. A topic I have thought about and struggled with myself. What if your ‘focal point’ is a feeling of peace? Of course you get that through colour choice, value choice. Does the focal point always have to be something tangible? I haven’t any answers yet, I get totally confused by ideas as ‘leading the eye through the painting’. It will be interesting to see the effect though of putting the greatest value contrast somewhere different. Thank you for making me think of this again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always confused me. I paint a lot of “mood” scenes with colors… and then people question me about the focal point. I thought the colors were the focal point. I’m hoping to get a better understanding as I keep studying.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a lot of thoughts about focal points. I think that you would enjoy watching a channel on YouTube. The artist, Stefan Baumann has a treasure load of videos. He is always talking about the importance of strong focal point in paintings. He is an oil painter but I find that his videos help me so much, check it out.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Unfortunately, I never consider a focal point. I suppose I’m just satisfied enough to fit what I want onto my canvases or drawing pads. It isn’t until I’m somewhere engrossed in the middle of a project that I might decide to have a particular part of the artwork to stand out. I like that you show some of your progressive stages in your drawings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always been confused about focal points, so it’s good for me to learn a little more about what they are and how to create them. It’s something I can work on now in both my drawings and in my paintings.


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