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Sam’s Quilt, 14×20 watercolor by Dale Ziegler, is a very well done, attractive painting that offers an important lesson about two fundamental concepts in good composition: center of interest and focal point. Although these two ideas might sound synonymous, there’s a critical difference that, when properly understood, will help you make stronger compositions.
A center of interest is that part of the picture which attracts the mind. A focal point is that area of a picture that attracts the eye. The center of interest acts as an “attention getter.” It commands the viewer’s curiosity or mental concentration, and it’s the part of the picture that we find naturally fascinating and want to know more about. Examples of centers of interest are eyes and faces, the human figure, animals, letters, numbers and symbols, and man-made objects. When we scan an image for the first time, our attention is naturally drawn to these items.
Notice in Sam’s Quilt that the artist has created a strong center of interest: the smiling face of the boy. Who could resist looking at that bright-eyed youngster? Faces and figures are natural centers of interest.
A focal point, on the other hand, acts as a kind of “eye magnet.” Strong tonal value contrast (light vs. dark) is the most powerful visual magnet. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to areas where light and dark are in stark juxtaposition. Bright colors, fine detail, sharp edges, anomalies, patterns and any arrow-like “pointers” also attract the eye. Any part of a picture that exhibits these features will make the viewer focus his gaze upon it.
An example of a focal point can be seen in this painting as well. In the upper right, there’s a lone square in the pattern that stands out from the rest—a light blue patch surrounded by bright reds. This little spot is strong “eye magnet” because it contrasts in value, color temperature, and size with its surroundings; the eye is naturally attracted to it.
Therein lies a potential problem: For a picture to be successful, the center of interest should also be a focal point. In other words, there should be one area that attracts both the eye and mind. To have an area in a picture that attracts your mind and another that attracts your eye is confusing and distracting to the viewer.
In this composition, that little blue square is competing with the boy’s face for your attention. It tugs your eye away from the face, especially since it is almost level with his eyes. To see just how strong the pull is, try covering it up. The square could be toned down in value or color temperature, making it grayer, warmer and at least one shade darker. The area will still be noticeable, and will function nicely as a secondary attraction for the eye, but it won’t be a distraction.
The contrast between the precise geometry and bright pattern of the quilt work and the boy’s irresistible smile makes Sam’s Quilt a successful composition that could be even stronger by a minor adjustment to one little patch of painting.
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