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Leading the Viewer’s Eye into the Focal Point

January 26, 2013

Leading the Viewer’s Eye into the Focal Point

By Marion Boddy-Evans

Norwegian artist Edward Munch painted four versions of his famous “Scream”, which has a strong focus but also encourages the viewer’s eye around the composition.

At its most basic, the focus or focal point in a painting is the thing that’s the most important or interesting. But for the artist it is much more than that. Focus is the element of composition which identifies the artist’s intent with their painting. It is both the seed of inspiration and the framework around which the artist has built their creative process.This means that

determining and developing the focus is one of the most important parts of the artistic process. Without it the painting will be arbitrary and vague, the viewer will be easily distracted by the next bright, sparkly thing in their field of vision.

In the artistic, creative process you can think of the focus as ‘the first line of a book’ — it’s

the thing that grabs the viewers attention and keeps them ‘reading’ the picture. You need to build your composition around the focus, to make sure that the viewer’s eye is not otherwise distracted before the focus is achieved.

For Western art this means you need to remember that the eye will tend to travel from left to right, and from top to bottom. The painting must have a structure through line and form which

takes the viewer through this, from the frame to the focus. Ideally, you will also want to make use of the golden ratio (or rule of thirds) to position the focus. Remember too that structure of the painting surrounding the focus must also work to help tell the picture’s story (it must be there for a reason). So

for a focus, location is vital.

The focus must be important enough for the viewers eye to linger there

. In this case you have to take the horse to water AND make it drink. The focus of your painting must connect with the viewer on at least one of the following levels:


(it brings out an emotional response).


(they find the painting intriguing and try to deconstruct its meaning).


(they must relate to the image either physically or mentally), or


(there is something in or about the painting that they desire).

The painting shown in the photo above,

Munch’s The Scream is a good example of how an artist develops the focus. Look at the flow of line and form. Whether you follow the jetty down and then back up the body of the figure, or across the sky and down the flowing bank, it takes us to the picture’s focus: the face with the hands held over the ears.

Munch has positioned the mouth of the large figure, off center towards the bottom right. If the eye starts, as predicted, in the top left, the position of the mouth in the lower right gives the viewer the greatest period of expectation as the eye is drawn into the painting. This is the equivalent of atmospheric music in a film feeding your emotion before a significant event is revealed.

The face (the focus) also grabs the viewer on an emotional level, in this case the basic emotional response of anxiety and dread. Munch has used the most significant form we recognize as humans, the human face. It is the first thing a baby learns to identify, and is possibly the most emotive image we can use as an artist.

Munch uses the form and structure of the painting to return us over and over to the focus and to reinforce its story. The use of line, straight and curved, implies pressure against the figure’s head (especially in the curve of the bank to the right and the mass of water above). This relates to the psychological state of the subject. The essence of the sound of a scream is echoed through the picture’s form, particularly the curve of the figure which suggests a varying degree, a warbling, of sound.

Munch has developed his original idea through the focus of the painting to give the viewer an emotional roller coaster ride. However many times you take the ride, you always end up at the focal point.

Submitted by Janet S.


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