What is this painting… of?

Have you ever really thought about the way you look at a painting, a photograph, or even a scene in real life? Your eyes skip around. You don’t take it in all at once, or process it neatly top-to-bottom like a computer might. You jump from one element to another, your eye drawn by those shapes, colors, and contrasts that are most interesting, unusual, or surprising. 

Not everyone’s experience of the same real-life scene is the same, of course. Perhaps you and a friend are looking at the same landscape. Your eye is drawn to a yellow tree in a sea of green trees. They are more interested in a duck that’s swimming on the lake. Each of you might paint a different picture of the same scene: yours might focus on the tree and not have a duck at all, and theirs might paint the duck in loving detail while reducing the trees to a hazy background. 

As an artist, you can curate your viewer’s experience. You can lead their eyes to the parts of your painting that you find most interesting and meaningful. But to do that, you need to know yourself just what it is you’re painting. What’s the center of interest? 

What do you like?

In Powerful Watercolor Landscapes, Catherine Gill and Beth Means call this center of interest “what.” As in, “what is this painting of?” In order to find it, it helps to clarify your “why.” As in “Why am I painting this? Why is this interesting to me? Why do I like it?” I love this, because it turns composing your painting into a deeply personal experience of getting in touch with your likes, preferences, and desires. 

What you like about a scene can be something really small, like “I like the way the flower petals look translucent in the light” or “I like the shape of that one branch.” You don’t need to know why you like it. In painting it, photographing it, or otherwise putting a frame around it, you draw attention to it and share your point of view. It’s like poking your friend and saying, “Look at that” – only better, because you are not only pointing to your “what”, but also interpreting it. It’s the nearest thing to letting them see through your eyes and with your emotions. 

How do you make your center of interest… interesting?

Now that you know what you want to make the star of your show, the question is how? Playing up your center of interest is the essence of composition, so this is a big question! Here are some (but not all!) options. You do not need to use all of them (some of them contradict). They’re just possible tools that are available to you. 

I’ve used landscape photos from Unsplash to demonstrate these points, but they can be done in painting or drawing as well as in photography.

Literally make it the focal point

Put it more in-focus than other elements on the page. In photography, focus on it and adjust the aperture so that the background is more out-of-focus. In watercolor, use the wet-on-dry technique to make your focal point detailed and high contrast, and more watery paint to make other elements softer. 

Photo by Łukasz Rawa on Unsplash
The dry asters in front are in focus, and everything in the background is out-of-focus. You can create this effect in watercolor with a wet-on-wet background and a wet-on-dry foreground.

Make it bigger

Zoom in on it or exaggerate its size compared to other elements. You do not need to paint your image in the same scale as you see it.

Photo by Peng Chen on Unsplash
The largest aspen trunk stands out. In a painting, you could exaggerate this effect.

Use leading lines.

Create straight or curved lines that literally lead the viewer around the image. In landscape scenes, paths and roads are obvious ways to do this, but look for other lines as well. 

Objects that are not connected can create an implied line.

Photo by Ricardo Alfaro on Unsplash
The path leads you into the photograph.

Keep it separated.

Separate it physically from other elements. In photography you made need to see if you can create or maximize space by moving your vantage point, but in painting/drawing you can literally just move the object.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
The lone tree jumps out.

Create contrast.

Create contrast compared to the rest of the surroundings. Maybe your focal point is the darkest point in a mostly-light image, the only pointy object in a sea of round shapes, or a red splash in field of green. 

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
The house stands out from the snow because of several kinds of contrast: hue (red vs white), value (medium vs light), and color intensity (vibrant vs. monochrome).

Use repetition.

This is sort of the opposite of contrast, but you can use both in different ways. Repetition happens when other elements on the page echo some aspect of the focal point (its shape, color, value, etc.) The echoes can remind the viewer of the original shape. 

Photo by Paul Summers on Unsplash
The general shape of the rock formation in the foreground is echoed in the mountain in the background.

Finding More Tools

Take a look at photos and paintings you like and try to identify the focal point. How did the artist make it stand out? It’s always helpful to find more tools for your composition toolbox.

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