Focus and Framing in Art and Life

Framing and Focus – How we look at the picture

After a break from taking and posting photos every day for 100 days, I discovered that I missed it a bit, so I asked myself what that was about. What came to me was that I missed choosing what to focus on in each photograph. It was stimulating each day to challenge myself to look at very familiar surroundings and to find an unfamiliar way of looking at them. Certainly there were mornings when I resented the “have to” feeling that I set up for myself. But almost every time I would move through that feeling into one of accomplishment, especially on days when I managed to surprise myself with something I hadn’t seen before.

The two words that came up for me as I thought about this were framing and focus. I’m using them in a non-“art-speak” kind of way, but it’s useful to at least look at what the capital-A Art world means by them. Framing is what an artist does to bring the viewer’s focus to something in the picture. It is about deciding what the viewpoint is, for instance, a lone tree might be framed by a wide, open field in a photograph, or a figure might be hunched in the lower corner of a painting. The framing can elicit a particular emotion from us, or hint at the intended meaning of the art.

What we choose to look at

For me, both framing and focus are about asking what gets included, what gets left out, what gets highlighted or emphasized. Why

choose this view over that one? When I take a picture focused on the blossoms, I’m allowing myself to get fascinated by them and ignoring the roots or bark. By shooting a close up of the grain of the wood in a fence, I have decided that the function of the fence doesn’t matter. Context drops away because of the tightness of the frame I’ve chosen.

Even a broader, landscape view will tell only part of the story. If I focus on the mountains across the Straight of Juan de Fuca, capturing both the ocean below and the sky above, you’re going to pay more attention to the relationship between the elements of the photo. The mountains seem to emerge from the sea to jut almost immediately into the sky – it will feel grand and impressive. No matter that in reality if I were to take the ferry over there I’d have to pass by boarded up buildings, road construction, and billboards before rising into the slopes of the Olympics.

The focus we choose determines the story that is told.

Focus and framing happen in other art forms too. This is even true in written and verbal art. A novel is usually written from one particular point of view. We could call that the framing. The author chooses what to tell us, and when. Some modern writers play with this, and tell old stories from an alternate point of view! (for instance Wicked by Gregory Maguire, or The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood) But in any story, we can always ask, which perspective is the writer asking me to look at this from? What is being left out of the story?

Focus and framing are everywhere. When you paint a picture, you can compose it in such a way that the eye naturally wants to settle somewhere in specific. And of course there is the actual framing of a picture, or the cropping of it. And this is something that can be great to play with in our own art.

Here’s a fun focus and framing exercise!

If you’re like me, not everything you make comes out the way you wanted. I always have have a number of pieces lying around that, for one reason or another, just don’t quite satisfy me aesthetically. Here’s something I sometimes do with them other than toss them directly in the “cut up for collage” bin or paint over them.

  • Take a piece of art that you perhaps don’t like so much as a whole. If you don’t have one, you can also do this with photographs in magazines.
  • Make two L-shaped pieces of card stock or cardboard. You might even want a few                                                   pairs in various sizes.
  • Play with using them to isolate certain parts of the art.
  • Can you find a focal point you like best? Can you frame it in such a way that it has a new or different meaning to you?
  • You can cut a segment out of your piece and use it in a new way – if it is small, perhaps it can be the front of a card, or put in a smaller frame, or used as an inspiration for a whole new piece!

Sometimes our lives need this kind of attention too. Are there places in your life that you need to “zoom in” on and see more closely? Are there situations that need more context included? Or that need reframing from a new perspective?  What do you habitually leave out when you tell your story? Is there something hiding just out of sight of the lens that could use your focus?

If  loss or change has knocked your life out of focus and you need help finding a way through the turmoil, I can help. Click here to contact me for a free consultation. You don’t have to cope alone. Video appointments available.