Focal-Point Power

The first thing you notice about Alpenglow (watercolor on 140 lb., cold-press watercolor paper; 8×10) by Kate Hamilton is the color, which pulls you right into the painting. The warm light on the distant Winter Park, Colorado, mountains contrasts nicely with the cool foreground and sky colors, creating an atmospheric sense appropriate to a vista of great depth.

Note how Hamilton’s color usage evokes a sense of stillness and cold; you really feel the sunlight fading on the hills and the gentleness of a day coming to a close. Hamilton also captures the optical phenomenon of alpenglow, the scattered red light from the setting sun reflected by snow or ice on mountainsides. The vast sweep of space and the mountains glowing in the sun fill the viewer with awe. In addition, the artist makes the most of the finely pitted surface inherent to cold-press watercolor paper. Pigment particles that have settled in the pits create a soft transition from warm light near the horizon to the darker, deeper sky above.

The painting as it is may be an accurate rendition of the scene, but the job of the artist is to improve upon nature so as to make the most interesting and satisfying picture possible. This painting could benefit from a stronger focal point, the part of the composition that tells what the picture is about. A focal point functions as both an anchor for the eye and a home base for the viewer’s attention. As an anchor, it keeps the eye from falling right out of the picture. As a home base, it establishes a place where the viewer’s attention returns each time it scans the picture.

The basic compositional structure of this painting is a series of horizontal bands across the lower third of a rectangle. This horizontality encourages the eye to travel right across the picture from one side to the other. Stopping the eye from exiting the picture requires a strong focal point to arrest the eye’s movement and retain its attention. The mountain peak to the left is the painting’s focal point, but it could be made to function more effectively with a few slight changes.

First, the peak could be a raised so it’s clearly the highest point on the horizon. This doesn’t have to be a dramatic altitude adjustment—just enough to be noticeable. Second, the sunlit area on this peak’s side could be just a bit brighter than elsewhere in the picture. This would increase the contrast between areas of light. Finally, a little added texture or detail on the mountainside—and perhaps greater angularity along the mountain ridge—would serve as very effective eye catchers.

Watercolor is a notoriously tricky medium to master; the artist cooperates with or coaxes the pigments and water rather than taking complete control over them. Hamilton has used watercolor to make a powerful, inviting picture with lots of character. A few minor changes to enhance the focal point would make it an even more effective composition.

Artwork for the Art Clinic is chosen from work posted on our message board (You must log on as a registered member to view and post on the Art Clinic forum.)

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