Two Easy Ways to Develop the Focal Point of Your Painting

My New Painting Inspired by Japanese Kakejiku Scroll Art
January 10, 2018
Paint Tuscany with Lori McNee
February 25, 2018
Show all

Two Easy Ways to Develop the Focal Point of Your Painting

There are a number of different ways to develop the focal point of your painting. In this post, I am sharing two easy techniques for developing a focal point, plus a helpful list of other ideas.

A focal point is a specific place of visual emphasis in your painting. It creates the center of attention. The focal point is the area that draws the eye of the viewer to the most important part of the painting.  Generally speaking, the focal point is most pleasing when it is placed off-center and away from the middle of the composition. However, many successful paintings have broken this ‘rule’ in art.

Nearly 30 years ago, Robert Bateman taught me a simple technique to find the focal point on a canvas. Robert, a world renowned wildlife painter, often uses this system when compositing his elegant paintings. 

Here’s how:

  1. Using a straight edge, first draw a diagonal line from the corner to corner on a canvas or panel.
  2. Next, find the center point of the canvas.
  3. Draw a line across the middle of the canvas, dividing the canvas into two equal rectangles.
  4. Now, draw a diagonal line from the lower right-hand corner across to the top corner of the rectangle. The focal point or “hot spot” of the canvas is where the lines intersect.

To add extra drama and tension, Robert Bateman will often place the subject right on the hot spot. For example, he will put the eye of an animal at this cross section to create the focal point of the painting.

In the image below, you can see how I found the hot spot on my canvas using Robert’s system.

focal point
focal point

The second simple way to find the focal point of a painting is called, The Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds is commonly used in visual arts today including painting, photography and design.

The Rule of Thirds is a simplified version of the Golden Rectangle or Golden Ratio. Also known as the Fibonacci Spiral, the Golden Ratio was originally discovered and used by the ancient Greeks in their architecture and design (see below).

Much like a tic-tac-toe board, The Rule of Thirds is a simple way to determine a focal point. With a total of four lines, two lines across the image horizontally, and two lines down the image vertically place. Evenly spaced, the lines cut the image up into thirds. Your focal points, or hot spots are found where the lines intersect as seen in the image below.

Sometimes you will have two focal points which may cause competition for attention in the composition. This tension can be modified by using size.

You can see an example of this below. In my painting, “Facing Fear,” I wanted to create a dynamic tension between the raven and the smaller chickadee. The raven draws your attention, but then your focus immediately moves to the smaller focal point, the chickadee.

At first glance The Rule of Thirds looks very similar to the Golden Rectangle. However, The Golden Rectangle is considered a divine proportion that can be found in nature and it is even more pleasing to the eye.

I’ll briefly explain: In geometry, a Golden Rectangle is a rectangle whose side lengths are in the Golden Ratio, which is (the Greek letter phi) approximately 1.618.

Below, a Golden Rectangle (in yellow) with longer side a and shorter side b, when placed adjacent to a square with sides of length a, will produce a similar Golden Rectangle with longer side a + b and shorter side a.

This illustrates the relationship

The Golden Rectangle is considered a divine proportion that can be found in nature which is very pleasing to the eye.

In geometry, a golden rectangle is a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio, , which is (the Greek letter phi), where is approximately 1.618. It is the result of when you do some complex maths on a rectangle to the tune of: a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.61803398875.  at a point that is very pleasing to the eye as discovered by the ancient Greeks.

In landscape painting, the horizontal lines are where you place your horizons. The human eye loves to view subjects placed at these intersections. You can see examples of this in any painting magazine or landscape photography magazine.

Of course, there are many other ways to create a focal point. Here are a few more ideas…

  • Shape – Contrasting shapes and textures can make a subject stand out – especially patterns that are repeated around a subject.
  • Focus – Create a sharper focus on your subject helps to develop the focal point.
  • Position – The Rule of Thirds or the Golden Rectangle will help you with the position of your focal point.
  • Size – A large subject is one way of creating a focal point. Similarly, a small subject might stand out!
  • Contrast – Using contrast between light and dark is a popular way to develop a center of interest or focal point.
  • Color – Bright colors against dull grays create a lot of interest for the eye.

I hope you learned something new and inspiring to help push your paintings to the next level! ~Lori 🙂

Originally published on

Lori McNee Art & Fine Art Tips