Let’s Talk About the Focal Point in Art (Part 2)

Editor’s note: It has been a pleasure and an honor to welcome Johannes Vloothuis as a guest blogger at ArtistsNetwork, where he shares his knowledge on a vast range of painting topics. This month (November 2015), you can join him nearly in-person during a series of live Paint Along sessions (sign up here), in which he shares his advice while you watch “over his shoulder” as he creates a painting. You can even follow along by using the templates that come with your registration.

How does a focal point relate to a painting?

In real life, you can always turn your head and move the eye far from a focal shape in order to subdue it. Focal points can die out because there is so much information to look at. We can turn our heads and have 360 degrees of information, thus continually overriding focal points for stronger ones. This is just how the eye works.

In paintings, however, since we have a limited space, the eye has to have a reason to stay inside the frame, so that if it decides to look anywhere else, like the next painting on a wall in an exhibition, or a piece of furniture nearby, it does so purely out of volition, because it has resisted that natural lure that the painting had to attract the eye (if it’s a good painting of course).

Many students think that there has to be one focal point, but in fact that would mean that the eye is strained to look at just one area and nowhere else. But this is not how the eye sees. The eye needs to move around by nature, so with art we have to let the eye behave similar to how it does in real life. This is the key to realism–not the details, but the degree in which the information presented agrees with the mechanics of the eye. The way we move the eye throughout the painting like it does in nature is through a hierarchy of focal points from strongest to smallest. This is not to say that a painting has to have multiple competing focal points of equal weight. Rather, it means that one focal point becomes peripheral to the next dominant one, as it can be dominant to the other. But in general there has to be one that trumps them all.

Advice for focal points in art by Johannes Vloothuis | ArtistsNetwork.com

You can have more than one focal point if you wish, but the second one must be subordinate. You can even have three. In this painting of Peggy’s Cove, the boats are the primary focal point and the distant houses in the fog are the subordinates.

Painting advice: focal points. Johannes Vloothuis | ArtistsNetwork.com

Most artists create a focal area in their paintings and provide a visual path to take the viewer there. A focal point is not imperative if you can make the viewer move around in your painting and into the depth.

Do I always have to indicate a focal point?

When it comes to landscapes the answer is no. 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.

Advice for focal points by Johannes Vloothuis | ArtistsNetwork.com

This painting (above) does not have a specific focal area. But because your eye is moving quite a bit and is exploring it doesn’t need one. When we get out of our car during a drive to look at a breathtaking scene we don’t look for a focal area. The same applies to paintings.


“Landscape Painting Essentials” and other video courses are available at NorthLightShop.com. North Light has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes titled Landscape Painting Essentials. Join his online art classes at http://improvemypaintings.com.

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