Not every painting needs or should have a focal point or area of interest. That said, these are a means to signal to viewers the important area(s) of a painting. If there is more than one focal point or area of interest, one should predominate.
In other words, using a focal point or area of interest is a way to distinguish what's truly most important in a painting and what is secondary.
Contrast is one very effective means for creating a focal point or area of interest. There are many, many ways to create contrast in a painting, both in terms of considering the design and composition of a painting, and in terms of painting techniques.
Here's six ways to create contrast, beginning with thinking about the design and composition of a subject:
Before painting, one considers the design and composition of a subject as a means to most effectively share the painter’s feeling about the subject, i.e., to tell the painter’s “story”. Here’s three ways (among many others) which contrast may be considered as part of design and composition:
1. Shapes & Edges:
Strong and visually interesting shapes always attract and hold the eye. So, explore how the area of interest (the truly important part(s) of the painting) can be designed and composed using shapes which are visually interesting and attractive. These shapes can be further strengthened and made compelling when they are defined by extensive use of hard edges. Hard edges always attract the eye! This strength of strong shapes and hard edges is also a potential painting weakness. If the entire painting is composed of competing strong shapes with hard edges, the viewer may be unable to decide what’s truly important in the painting and what’s not. So use this approach selectively and carefully, and strive to limit to the area of interest of a painting. “Still Life, No. 1”, a demonstration painting for a class of early watercolor painters, uses simple repetitive shapes, and a variety of hard, soft and lost edges to attract the viewer’s eye and to encourage movement throughout the painting. The class was learning to paint “loosely and colorfully” through the use of simple but interesting shapes and the use of a variety of edges.
When an element of a painting occupies more than 50% of the painting, it dominates the painting! It’s almost impossible to ignore a dominate passage! So if something is truly important in a painting, be bold and “zoom” in on it and making it occupy the majority of the painting. No viewer will miss your story if it dominates the painting! “Hill Country Exploration, No. 4” tells its story with a single, dominating shape which, in conjunction with a strong sense of illumination, makes immediately clear to the viewer what’s important in the painting.
When an element in the painting exhibits asymmetry and/or imbalance, in an otherwise orthogonal composition, the viewer’s eye will quickly move to that element and linger because it is so “different” and “dynamic”, compared to the rest of the painting. This can be a wonderful technique to encourage movement and a dynamic sense to a painting. “Hill Country Spring, No. 3” uses asymmetry and imbalance to energize the painting and give it a sense of movement and dynamics. The visually interesting and strong barn shape, with it’s hard edges, contrasts with the soft and relatively undefined foreground flowers and vegetation.
Once one’s design and composition for a painting is established and understood, it’s time to sling paint! The wonderful thing about watercolor is that there are so many ways to mix and apply paint, including letting gravity help you with mixing, applications and effects!
Here’s three painting techniques which will help in creating contrast where you want it. Caution: plan ahead where you want contrast and where you don’t! In many paintings, there are areas which are truly important and other areas which are only secondary. Keep the contrast in the important areas!
Light and dark elements placed in proximity to one another always creates a strong visual contrast. Light and dark elements in juxtaposition with one another attract and hold the eye, while elements of close or similar value encourage the eye to keep moving. When using color it’s important to understand that every paint hue has an inherent value, i.e., yellows tend to be a light value; reds and oranges often are a middle value; violets, blues and greens may often be a middle-dark to dark value. These inherent values may be modified to be lighter (by diluting with water or tinting with white) or darker (by adding a complementary or near-complementary hue and/or a darkening neutral). Thus, choosing a color also means choosing an inherent value. “Midnight Blue” uses 5 or 6 different blue paints, from light to dark value, to support the story of evening in the woods. The range of values attracts the eye into the painting and encourages movement throughout the painting.
The placement of one or more highly saturated hues in juxtaposition with other grayed, neutralized hues also creates a visual contrast and is very useful for “colorist” painters. Intensity contrast is one of the simplest ways to create contrast using color. It consists of using pure, saturated, clean color juxtaposed with lots of grayed, neutralized “dirty” hues. If the grayed passages have a complementary or near-complementary color bias, the contrast becomes even stronger! “North Woods, No. 3” is one example of using saturated hues in combination with complementary “neutralized” hues for creating contrast in foreground area of the painting, as well as through and into the background sky. Study how it differs in effect from the previous painting using values for contrast!
Juxtaposing “warm” and “cool” passages together may be as powerful a technique for contrast as using light and dark values. Temperature contrast is a very strong visual approach. When warms and cools are closely juxtaposed, the eye jumps there and tends to stay. The greater the degree of warm vs. cool juxtaposing, the more the eye is attracted. “Road to Bandera” is an example of the contrast possible using warm and cool hues to pull one’s eye into and through the painting:
Hopefully, this very brief introduction to contrast will stimulate your thinking and exploration of how this important principle can help strengthen your painting. There are many other useful approaches for creating contrast, so paint on and push the margins! Comments and critique are welcome! Happy painting!