Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Importance of being Focal

Why are focal points important?  It’s because they are a tremendous help in capturing people attention – a very good reason for having, or at least considering, using them.
I’m assuming that we want people to look at our work?  Even though there are a few artists out in the desert or closeted in their own homes who make work for reasons other than viewing , and often brilliant work too, they are rare. Rosie Lee Tompkins was a prime example of this.  For most of us, we want people to look and be fascinated.

We want to be fascinated ourselves! I’m struggling to learn watercolor and I can say without a doubt it’s a lot harder than quiltmaking or piano or square dancing – the other things I’m working on. I’ll paint a picture or two and if there are no glaring horrors (alas far too many of those), hang them up on the wall, and see what happens.  Usually they bore me stiff within a very few days.  They just look bland and blah.  Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, but a key one is lack of a focal point, or center of interest area.  In fact there’s usually a whole lot of no interest at all!  And I feel that about many quilts that I see online. 

The focal point (also termed center of interest) is a technical way to provide interest or emphasis in a work of art; it serves to capture our attention initially and then, hopefully, keep it – as least for a short while.  Usually the focal point is pretty obvious in a representational work, but can easily be achieved in an abstract piece too.

Can you have more than one focal point?  Indeed yes, but one should be more important than the others. A more focal focal point, or in the case of the tenor on the stage a more vocal focal!! (sorry, couldn’t resist!).

As to how to achieve the focal point? There are several techniques.
I think that contrast is one of the most important.  Contrast in anything: shape, line, value, color or texture.  A big shape among little ones, a jagged line amongst curved, a very dark value in a light area, a highly saturated color on a neutral background, a detailed flower amidst soft blurry ones. As human beings, we are drawn to the one that is different.  There’s probably a good survival reason for this, but we can exploit it to make our work stronger.

Isolation can also  be used: one element is alone, there’s a lone child on one side and a group of kids in the rest of the photo – where would you look?

Placement is another possibility – if an element has all other elements pointing towards it, our eye tends to go to it.  The light at the end of the tunnel.  The ball in the golf game – to which everyone’s gaze is pointed.

Of course, if want you want to communicate “the sameness” of everything, the unrelieved repetitiveness of it – like some Techno music – then you can deliberately avoid having a focal point.  In a way, then, the absence of a focal point becomes the focal point. Andy Warhol’s soup cans are often cited as being an example of this.

And sometimes if there is a lot or overall interest and variety, as, for example, in a sampler quilt, then our attention will be caught by the multitude of ideas we have to explore.  A multitude of focal points!

So, if you do have a focal point where should it be?   Unless there’s a specific point to be made with an unusual placement, we’re both used to, and more aware of, a placement that is just a little ways off the exact middle of the work – in any direction.  Having the focal point right on the edge of the piece (unless the message is alienation or something like that) is not as effective in keeping our attention on the whole piece.  Having it slap bang in the middle (unless we’re communicating something about targets, or feeling like a target) tends to make the work rather static.

Look back at photos of your quilts.  Do they have focal point or not?  Take a couple that don’t have them and using software like Photoshop or Gimp, add one in – using contrast, isolation or placement.  In this case, contrast is probably the easiest to achieve. Print out both versions of the quilt and show them to a few folk and ask which one is more interesting.  Don’t tell them what you’ve done!  Just test out the idea that having a focal point makes an art work more intriguing.

And now, my focal point is a nice cuppa tea!!  Off to put the kettle on!!
If you have been, thanks for reading.  Elizabeth


Christine Staver said...

Good blog about focal pt. I am thinking that maybe our next master class lesson will be on focal point!

Elizabeth Barton said...

that's a good idea!! aha! but not next month.....

Jackie said...

Excellent post! I think I'll look at photos of my work on the computer, probably not as good as full size, but it'll work I think. I've not examined them for focal point. Thank you!

Vicki Miller said...

The point you make about altering thing digitally is great. sometimes just taking the photo and looking at it can make you see what a piece needs, because it makes you step back and look at it from a distance. I find that always helps.
By the way, I am loving reading your book!

needlescape said...

Yes, I have tried watercolors and it IS alot harder than quilting. There is less control over the outcome unless you are very good.