Charting a Course

People have different ways of getting about, different ways of maneuvering through life, different ways to get where they’re going. I would truly be lost without GPS.

Some people feel the same way about their bullet journals.  Yes, I jumped on that bandwagon recently, thought it would be fun, and even ordered a nifty little journal with grid paper. It’s still in the Amazon envelope, unopened. I’d no sooner placed the order than I realized the folly of it. I’m not the sort of planner who can make use of a bullet journal, and before you try to convince me otherwise, let me point out that I tried. I really did. I used a blank journal I had. I created several pages. I thought about what I wanted and what I needed, and in the end, I just needed to forget about bullet journaling. I love seeing what others have done in their bullet journals, but it’s just not for me.

What that means is that this post is not really about bullet-journals. It’s not about using any global positioning satellite, and it’s not even about astrology, although a lot of people turn to the stars to chart a course through life. Navigators have long used the stars to guide their journeys, but in a much different way. For me… well, I’ve always been curious about astrology and the planets. I have a basic working knowledge and I usually do hop over to a website each morning for a quick read of my daily horoscope. I then forget all about it and go on with my day.

Anyway, this post is not about astrology either. I may venture off into odd territory from time to time, but this is still an art blog. It’s still my way of sharing what I’m learning, hoping to encourage others, and keeping track of my progress as I journey along.

Today, the specific topic is a familiar one. Focal points. I’m looking at it now (no pun intended) as plural, and even though I’ve read many times that some paintings — such as landscapes — don’t have to have a focal point, and even though fellow artists have often asked me that soul-crushing question, “Where’s your focal point?”, I have come to my own conclusion that (a) every painting needs focal points, and that (b) intentional or not, every painting has a focal point.

I could be wrong, of course.

In my limited art education as a child, I erroneously believed that “focal point” and “subject” were essentially one and the same. If I drew a tree — or tried to, at least — that tree was the focal point. “Just don’t put it in the middle of the page,” we were told, and that was the end of that discussion.

Having spent a good portion of the last four years acting as my own art teacher, I’ve managed to learn the basics of drawing and painting. Of course, I couldn’t have done it on my own. I’ve had help from many talented artists, many tutorials and demonstration videos, and many different books, magazines, and online articles about art.

And through it all, I’ve struggled with focal points. I’ve read, I’ve studied, I’ve questioned. But I never found answers that really made sense to me. Until a few days ago, that is. Yes, I learned what focal points are all about — again, notice that it’s plural — and I’m learning how to use them in my art.

It came about through that still life exercise I shared recently. Here’s the “5 Shape Still Life” I did following instructions from an oil painting book by Arnold Fletcher.

Fauve-Inspired Still LIfe (2)
5-Shape Still Life Practice #1

Remember, these are only meant to be broad, flat shapes, not rounded-appearing three-dimensional-looking forms. The point of the lesson was to learn to compose objects for a painting, to place these shapes in a balanced, harmonious way. The arrangement I used was one suggested and shown by Fletcher. Why not? He knew what he was doing, so why not just do the same thing?

Well, I’ll tell you why not. If all I do is follow along, I’m not really figuring things out for myself. So, after doing that little painting — which I like for what it is — I couldn’t shake off that “Hey, you didn’t really even try” feeling. I should have taken my basic shapes, played around with them, and tried to at least come up with an arrangement on my own.

But there’s a problem with that, too. Even though I’m acting as my own art teacher, I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know all the questions. If I put another arrangement together, how would I know if it was right or wrong?

Maybe I could tell just from looking at it. Maybe if I did something completely wrong, I would be able to see that it wasn’t working. Maybe I’d even be able to figure out why. It became a bit of an adventure, a little game of art-sleuthing with a touch of morality thrown in for fun. Could I, as an artist, learn to tell the difference between right and wrong?

I love doing little things in totally random ways, so I assigned each shape a number, then used a random-number-generator to put them in order for me. Yes, random order is an oxymoron, but it’s one of the foundations by which I live.

Here was my second still-life random arrangement of shapes:

Still Life Shapes 2 (2)
5-Shape Still Life Practice #2

This was very hastily painted. Like its counterpart, it’s cheap poster-paint on newsprint, and lots of my original pencil lines show through. I did make the dinner plate a little larger here, and the shape of my pitcher isn’t quite right.

None of that matters, though, because this isn’t about accuracy in drawing. It’s not about values or three-dimensionality. It’s not about proper brushstroke technique. It’s about one thing only — the arrangement of the shapes.

Here are the two paintings side by side:

You’ll notice that I used essentially the same colors for each shape in both paintings. My mix for the table color wasn’t quite the same.

  • Which arrangement do you find most pleasing?
  • Is one arrangement “better” than the other?
  • Is one right and the other wrong? 

These are the questions I pondered. I definitely liked Fletcher’s arrangement (#1), but what about my random arrangement? I knew it didn’t work quite as well, but I didn’t know why. To my inexperienced mind, it seemed like a reasonably good arrangement.

That’s when I started thinking about focal points — plural. As I looked at these paintings, I started asking that dreaded question: Where is the focal point?

What is a focal point? My mind was starting to go beserk, I could feel the tears of frustration welling up, and I was just about to throw the whole set of paints, brushes, and newsprint into the trash. Not really. I’m exaggerating a bit here for dramatic purposes. Artistic license, you know.

But that’s when it came to me. A focal point is — now, this is only my personal definition —what we see when we look at a painting. More specifically, or perhaps I should say more to the point, it’s what we first see or notice when we look at a painting.

Now, I realize that other artists have been trying to point this out to me for years, but it’s one of those things I had to figure out on my own before it really made sense to me. Here are the actual notes I made in my notebook:

I suppose every painting has some sort of focal point. I mean, seriously. If we look at a painting then our eyes are focusing somewhere. Am I right?

My notes ramble on with a few more ridiculous thoughts, but I’ll spare you those. Eventually I came to this realization:

Basically, I have to tell the viewer’s eyes to ‘start here, move to this place, and now go there.’

I realized that the so-called focal point I’ve heard about for so long is really only a starting point. I need to use elements — such as balance and harmony — to guide the viewer through the painting. I have to chart a course for the viewer to follow.

For me, that was an “aha” moment. And with that, I was off and mentally running, eager to chase down this newly-discovered understanding, to catch it before it got away.

I analyzed the paintings, making note of exactly what I looked at and in what order I noticed the shapes.

Here’s #1: Fauve-Inspired Still LIfe (2)

The light center of the plate catches my attention. I look there first. The blue pitcher handle juts into this focal point, leading my eyes toward the pitcher itself. Because it’s a fairly large area of color, I feel the need for balance, and I move my eye next to the blue cup and saucer. Now, I’m low and on the right, so to balance myself, my eyes move up and to the left. I see the bottle. It’s reddish label quickly draws my eye downward, and I jump then to the corresponding red color of the bowl. I have seen it all.

It’s that last sentence that’s key.  Fletcher’s arrangement adroitly led me through the entire painting, letting me see each separate shape.

How about my random arrangement? Here it is:Still Life Shapes 2 (2)

My sight focuses first on the white/light center of the dinner plate, then moves downward to the blue cup and saucer. The blue pitcher then gets my attention, and to balance my mind out, my focus moves to the wine bottle on the opposite side.

What about that red bowl? Oops. I didn’t notice it. I didn’t even see it. Did you?

And just for fun, I did a third painting, again using a “random order”. In this painting the shapes are a little father apart, and you’ll notice I made the red bowl much bigger.

Still Life 3 (2)
5-Shape Still Life Practice #3

For me, this arrangement — although it seems reasonably balanced — doesn’t work. My eyes go first to the wine bottle in the center. I see the label, and maybe my eyes want to jump over to that red bowl. But then what? Then where? My eyes don’t travel through this arrangement. I just look and stop. I can see  it all, of course, but only if I consciously make myself look at each individual shape. It’s not a natural progression.

I realize this is a long post, and it’s probably not telling you anything you didn’t already know. But writing it has helped me solidify this new understanding in my own mind. So often we hear things, we read things, we see things, but until we actually do those things, the simple truth eludes us.

So I now believe that every painting has a starting focal point , and that good paintings go on to chart a course for the viewer, moving from one focal point to another. Now, I’m excited to look at art from this new point of understanding. Finally, it’s starting to make sense.




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