The Art of Composition: Painting Tips on Directing the Viewer's Eyes to your Focal Point

One of the many painting tips you often hear is to never place the focal mass right in the dead center (though sometimes people use their artistic license and break that rule).

But besides this 'common sense' rule, that the majority of artists swear by, what other rules can you use to strengthen your compositions?

I have assembled the following list of painting tips to help you learn how to place your main subject and arrange the surrounding elements to emphasize it. Using these tools, you can design art work with a strong, unified composition.

Tip #1: Use lines to convey emotions and guide the eyes.

Lines are the easiest way for the artist to suggest a path for the eye to follow--particularly long lines that recede from the viewer. Horizontal lines suggest calm and peaceful feelings. Vertical lines communicate strength and fortitude. Angular or diagonal lines express motion and energy; these are the ones most likely to draw you into the picture.

Tip #2 : Use an obvious circular or diagonal element to create an entrance to the focus of the painting.

The eyes should move from the main subject to subordinate objects before they exit the painting or drawing. Make sure that there are no more than two exits.

Tip #3 : Crop elements with the painting's frame. This technique enhances a sense of reality; it keeps the painting from looking too static and artificial.

Tips #4 : Place the strongest value (tonal) contrast near the main subject—the mass (or masses) you want to emphasize. To do this, you can either touch with light the things you wish to emphasize or place dark accents next to them.

Tips # 5 : Add sharp edges to the elements of the composition that you wish to emphasize and soften the edges of those you wish to deemphasize. Our eyes tend to be drawn to the harsh notes in a pictorial make up.

Boating Party by Mary Cassatt

To illustrate the above painting tips, I like to use “The Boating Party” by Mary Cassatt; a picture is worth a thousand words!

Note that:

  • The center of interest—the woman holding the girl—is placed in the middle of the painting.

  • The horizontal lines on the boat are balanced by the oar and the diagonal lines of the sail.

  • The outer edge of the boat, the mass of the sail, and even the man's posture point toward the center of interest. Notice how his outstretched left arm points toward the girl?

    Mary Cassatt's

  • The unequal distribution of light and dark masses draws the eyes to the brighter areas occupied by the woman, the girl and the boat. If you painted the man in similarly light tones, it would deemphasize the woman and the girl.

  • Mary Cassatt used the river bank and the sail beautifully as possible exit points without distracting the eye from the main focus.

The last of this set of painting tips is this:

When you have time, study other artists' paintings and learn to analyze their composition.

You will not only learn more about composition, but you will see how these principles are actually used to make more attractive paintings. You will soon find that you have a stronger visual “voice”!

> > Creating A Focal Point

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