The Seven Principles of Design: Emphasis

Written for ART.HOME.SOUL. in 2015 

One of the most important aspects of creating good art is knowing how to control the attention of your audience. In order to communicate anything with the viewer, they must be able to understand what the artist considers important.

Emphasis refers to creating a focal point within a design in order to bring attention to a certain element. It catches the eye, draws attention, and helps viewers identify what the “most important” part of a composition.

Emphasis can be achieved a number of ways. Contrast can be used to separate elements by making them different from each other. Consider how a bright, colorful object can stand out from the rest of a room. Likewise, emphasis can be achieved through placement, because an isolated element is sure to stand out.

The largest element in a composition will attract the eye, like a moth to a flame. Even if the largest element is nowhere near the center of the image, it will still be the center of focus. Hence, size equals importance or emphasis creates visual hierarchy. What is the first thing you notice when you walk into a room? What is the second thing? The third? You should be able to identify importance by what is emphasized in a room, in a painting, or in any other mode of art.

In order for emphasis to work, however, there must be dominance and subordination of elements in a design. Some things get more attention, and others get less. Some things are bold, and some are not. Think opposites. If everything is large and bold and meant to stand out, than nothing will be emphasized.

After all, isn’t the very purpose of art emphasis? To attract, to engage, to capture? The true artist is adroit at communicating importance to the viewer, which creates a composition that is truly arresting.

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