The focal point in a drawing establishes a place for your eye to start before it moves around the picture and returns back to the focal point. Also known as the center of interest, it should be the most interesting and important area in the drawing. So the first thing to ask yourself when beginning a new drawing is, “Why am I drawing this?” “What is so appealing about this subject?” What is my focal point?
For example, there’s an abandoned salmon cannery that I find fascinating. I like it for the weathered wood, the decaying pilings and the history it holds. I’ve done a drawing of one side of the building (see the gallery), but I want to do a drawing of the other side. If you’re not sure how to compose a subject to accentuate what’s important, try doing thumbnail sketches. I did four 2 x 3 inch quick drawings to try different possibilities.
The first sketch puts the white tank smack in the center. Because that’s the area of strongest contrast – the most common way of creating a focal point – the tank really grabs attention. A centered focal point creates a bull’s eye that’s hard to leave to see what else is going on in the drawing. Ideally the focal point should be in one of four locations. You can find these by dividing each side of your paper, whatever size or orientation it is, into thirds. Like this:
The area around any of those four intersections is optimum for the center of interest. In the second drawing I made the tank smaller and darker, it now blends in with the building better so it’s central location isn’t objectionable. And, I moved the building down on the page to provide more background. The center of interest is now on the right side of the page where dock is in the light and the shadows around it create the strongest contrast.
I’m working from photographs and I like the effect of some other views showing the building in sunlight. Sketch 3 and 4 are the sunlight views. Again I did a sketch with the roof to the paper edge, and another showing the water beyond the structure. I continue to make the tank small, and try to provide contrast along the side of the building where I can play up the importance of the weathered wood and interesting windows. I like these two better.
The thumbnails are just for planning purposes. I know I can add contrast and interest as I work on the larger drawing. Do I always do thumbnails before I draw? It depends on how complicated the subject is. If I’m drawing a single object in my journal, like a pitcher or an egg beater, no. But if I’m doing an entire scene, it’s really helpful.
I like the fourth thumbnail best, I think I’ll use this one.