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Emphasis in Art: The Principle of Design Explained

A Guide for Teachers

Have you ever looked at a painting and noticed that your eyes are drawn to one spot first? That’s probably because the artist used emphasis in their work! Emphasis is a principle of art and design that can help you create a dynamic composition that is visually interesting! It tells viewers what to look at, and helps artists bring attention to an area of their work.

Not a reader? No problem - feel free to watch our Emphasis in Art Explained! video that breaks down this principle and all the ways it can be used!

What is Emphasis in Art?

Emphasis is the principle of design that uses elements of art and other design principles to draw attention to a certain area. When artists use emphasis, it’s a way for them to make the viewers look at a specific part of the artwork, or lead their eye through multiple focal points. Usually, the artist will emphasize the most important part of an artwork, or just something that they want to stand out. Imagine a picture that has a bright light against a dark background. That light, and whatever it touches, will be emphasized. Usually, emphasis uses contrast to create focal points.

What is a focal point?

One: Number 31, 1950 by Jackson Pollock (left) and Balloon Girl by Banksy

A focal point is where the artist wants to draw viewers’ eyes to. Some artwork doesn’t have focal points, like this Jackson Pollock painting above, where the purpose is to document the artist’s process and movement, not any specific area. On the other hand, an artist like Banksy (seen above) uses contrast and colour against a light background to create two focal points, the girl and the red balloon. Banksy’s work is very graphic and usually more conceptual, so focal points help him bring attention to a specific meaning he is trying to present to his viewers.

Emphasis Examples in Art

Emphasis Through Contrast

Villagefire by Night by Adam Colonia

Contrast can be made with many opposing elements, but is most commonly used with colour and value. When we create contrast through value, there will usually be a light area against a dark area. On a mostly dark image, the light area will stand out, and on a mostly light image, the dark area will stand out. In the example above titled Villagefire by Night by Adam Colonia, our eyes are drawn to the light area, since the rest of the painting is otherwise dark. This happens a lot when artists paint night scenes and the moon stands out against the night sky.

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet

Complementary colours are also a great way to create contrast (and emphasis) in an artwork. Like this painting above, Monet uses a bright orange against muted blue hues to bring emphasis to the sun. Although it doesn’t use light against dark like the value example above, our eyes are still drawn to the small circle in the sky because it is the exact opposite from the blues we see throughout the painting. It is also more saturated, or vivid, against the duller blues.

Painting Blue Star by Joan Miró

In a similar way, isolated colours also create contrast and emphasis in an artwork. Isolated colours don’t need to be complementary. Instead, they are colours that stand out simply because they are different from the most used colour. For example, in the painting above, pink and red are not complementary to blue, but they stand out in a painting that is mostly blue.

Emphasis Through Space / Isolation

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Isolation is when you take certain elements of an artwork and separate them from the group. This allows your eyes to travel to the isolated part because it has the most space around it. Although it can be done with contrast, it can also be created in a more literal way by using space, another essential element of art. In the painting Nighthawks, Edward Hopper uses literal isolation to create emphasis, since the male figure in the middle is seated away from the other people, making him ‘isolated’ because of the space between him and the other figures. This, along with his position in the center of the painting, work together to make him the focus of the piece.

Emphasis Through Detail

Portrait of P.L. by Francis Bacon

Emphasis can also be created with extra detail or texture in a certain part of an artwork. If a piece of art is simple, the area with the most detail will be emphasized, and if a piece of art has high detail, the area with the least detail will be emphasized. Sometimes, this type of emphasis can interrupt the unity and harmony of an artwork. It can make the emphasized area feel out of place, but that can also work to your advantage if the goal is to make it stand out. Take a look at the painting above by artist Francis Bacon. Do you notice that your eyes are drawn to the figure’s face? That’s because the painting is simple overall, but the face has a high level of detail, which appears to be a different texture compared with the rest. The artist used simple shapes and large areas of colour around the face, while the face has many small forms that draw our eyes in.

Emphasis Through Line / Convergence

Convergence is used when there are leading lines in an artwork. Leading lines are directional lines within a composition that lead our eyes to a focal point. For example, although the image above doesn’t have plain lines, it uses implied lines (such as angles, alignment, and perspective) to bring our eyes to the center of the picture. When things converge at a point, it emphasizes the area or subject that the artist wants us to see first.

Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein

Like the painting above, titled Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, convergence can also use literal lines to create a point of emphasis. In this example, our eyes are led to the sun in the center. Usually though, artwork will use implied lines to create this same effect.

How to Use Emphasis in your Art

Emphasis is a great tool to use when creating your own art because it allows you to guide the eye of the viewer. Pick one of the examples we discussed above - contrast, isolation, detail, or convergence – and create your own piece of artwork. Think of what you want your focal point to be, and use these different techniques to create emphasis in your own compositions! You can take a look at this Art Demo on Emphasis featuring Kirby that uses the concepts we learned above!

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around the elements and principles of design, visit these quick and easy resources!

If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down the elements of art and more!

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