The Face on Mars: A Focus on Focal Points

By Brian @ Madaras Gallery

In our previous Bigfoot Blog, we spoke about employing the rule of thirds to improve the composition in paintings and photography. During that discussion, the subject of focal points came up. We’re going to continue exploring that concept.

At its core, the idea of a focal point in art is pretty basic: it’s the place where your eye tends to go. That’s it. Nothing too complex.


The more important question is why? This is true whether you’re making visual art yourself or just appreciating it. Why does your gaze tend to fall on certain places in the painting?


A focal point is created when a certain element has what is called visual weight. In this case, the weight is what pulls your attention away from other elements in the composition. A painting might use one technique to create visual weight, or it might use several. Let’s discuss some of these techniques.

Probably the most common technique to create visual weight is contrast. Our eyes are drawn to contrast, and there are various ways to use it. For example, it might refer to the contrast of light & dark. We can see this in Night Blooming Cereus III.
Night Blooming Cereus III | Southwest Art | Diana Madaras
This is a very obvious use of light/dark contrast to create visual weight. The flower stands out strongly against the black background, and your eyes immediately rest upon those outstretched petals. For another example, consider Bird in the Canyon. Notice how the darkest part of the painting contrasts with the brightest part at one specific point, drawing your eye directly to the bird’s face.
Bird in the Canyon | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras

A focal point can also be created when contrasting black & white with color. In most cases, the color element will have strong visual weight compared to the unsaturated surroundings. This is found in Painted Sky, where the swirling multi-hued clouds grab your attention above the black, silhouetted ground.


Painted Sky | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


Another form of contrast that is useful in creating visual weight is isolation. By surrounding your intended focal point with negative space, you draw attention to the intended spot.


What about Me? | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


In What About Me?, the dog sits alone in a field. The animal’s isolation gives it visual weight, causing it to become the focal point of the painting. We can also see a difference in the level of detail and focus. There’s contrast between the detailed pup and the more abstract, blurry field that it sits in. And this, again, creates visual weight. Both of these techniques are also present in Maui.


Maui | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


Take a look at Arizona Rose for another illustration of the contrast between high and low detail. In this painting, the more precise detail of the stamens calls your gaze. As you might also note, this is an image with two very clear focal points.


Arizona Rose | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


Yet another example of contrast lending visual weight comes from using patterns in your art – specifically, breaking them. Our brains are very good at spotting patterns. Because of this, it really stands out when something breaks that arrangement. Imagine a field of red flowers with one blue one. A row of lockers with one open. A grouping of circles with one square.


Lean on Me | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras    Mailbox 3211 | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


In both Lean on Me and Mailbox 32111, a visual pattern emerges. The element that breaks the pattern becomes the focal point. A boot that’s leaning over, unlike the rest. A mailbox that breaks from the chain of repeating fence posts. This is where your eye tends to go first.


Moving on from various contrast techniques, let’s return to patterns again. One pattern in particular is very good at drawing our attention: faces. We’re quick to spot faces, especially eyes. This urge in our minds is so powerful, sometimes we even create them when they aren’t there. Behold, the infamous Face on Mars.


Face on Mars | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras

(left) The original NASA image from 1978 and (right) the Mars Global Surveyor composite from 2001


In the original image, your attention immediately goes to the “face.” It’s clear that faces and eyes tend to have a strong visual weight. Just take a look at He’s Mine.


He's Mine | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


Your gaze immediately goes to those haunting eyes. In fact, they draw your attention so strongly that it often takes a bit to even notice the pet rabbit she clutches so closely. This works for animals as well. Don’t believe me? Where do your eyes alight when you look at King of Sandibe or Hummingbird and the Hibiscus?


King of Sandibe | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras    Hummingbird and the Hibiscus | Tucson Gallery | Diana Madaras


A slightly more advanced technique to create a focal point is using lines. The shapes, color, and shading in a composition will often create lines that work as a directional map for your eyes. One of the more common ways this is seen is with vanishing points.


Walk in Sabino | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras    Trip Down the Grand Canyon | Tucson Gallery | Diana Madaras


Walk in Sabino uses this technique quite literally, as the path itself forms two converging lines that guide your gaze towards the end. In Trip Down the Grand Canyon, both edges of the river take you to the vanishing point in the distance. Grand Canyon actually creates several strong lines throughout the painting, all pointing towards the same spot. That spot has the most visual weight, making it our primary focal point.


Grand Canyon Focal Points | Tucson Gallery | Diana Madaras


There are numerous other techniques to help create visual weight. Size, for instance. Larger elements obviously tend to stand out more than smaller ones. Warmer colors generally draw the eye more than cooler hues. Certain color combinations are eye catching. Some argue that the right side of a composition has more inherent weight in our culture because we read from left to right. The list goes on…

You might have noticed that some of these paintings apply multiple techniques that we’ve discussed. That’s great! An artist can use as many as they like to achieve the desired effect. Let’s examine First Light.


Fist Light | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


There are various techniques on display here. The brightness of the mountain peak contrasts against the darker sky. The peak sits on the right side of the composition, and it is a warmer color than the surrounding sky and saguaros. The lines of the mountain itself lead the eye directly up to the top. You could even argue that there is a pattern of saguaros that is broken by the peak jutting up into the sky.


There aren’t any faces this time. On the other hand, with the way our minds work, if you look long enough, maybe you’ll find one anyway.

Now, we have one final important question: why does any of this matter? Why do we need focal points? Ultimately, you don’t. Some abstract painters eschew them. Mark Rothko usually had them. Jackson Pollock regularly didn’t.


Rothko & Pollock | Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Diana Madaras


However, it’s valuable to understand the concept whether you’re an artist or just an art connoisseur. Traditional images with no focal points (or too many focal points!) are often seen as disorganized or too busy for the eye to appreciate. A focal point helps the viewer better understand the composition of a painting. Visual weight can also help to tell a narrative by drawing the viewer’s attention to various places in the image. It can guide their eyes right where the artist wants them to go.


So, next time you’re studying a painting, take note of where your eyes go. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of why they go there and how the artist helped guide you right to the appropriate focal point.



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