Principles of Good Design: Emphasis

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design principle emphasisThe principle of emphasis is another important design element. It is applied when an artist wants to attract more attention to a certain element or area within a painting by giving it dominance that makes it stand out.

Defining Emphasis

Emphasis in art is when the artist gives dominance to or stresses a particular area or element of focus in a painting. Without it a composition is nothing more than a presentation of a group of details with equal importance. When a composition has no emphasis nothing stands out as demonstrated in the illustration below. However the effective use of this design principle calls attention to the important areas of the painting. Thereby creating elements of interest causing the eye to return to again and again.

emphasis added
no emphasis added

Adding Emphasis

The way of achieving emphasis is by creating a center of interest, also called a focal point. A focal point is an area where the eye tends to center and is the focus of the viewer’s attention. It is created by making one area or element in the painting standout or most important visually while all other elements are contributing but subordinate. Subordinates are other compositional elements that have been minimized or toned down in order to bring attention to the center of interest. The focal point may be the largest, brightest, darkest, or most complex part of the whole, or it may get special attention because it stands out for some other reason. No more than one component should vie for primary attention. When more than one component gets equal billing, emphasis is canceled out.

Some ways to create emphasis might include:

    • Contrast — the more strongly an element contrasts with its surroundings, the more it stands out and draws attention it to itself. See the discussion on Contrast for information about how to use this design principle.
    • Isolation — similar to placement, isolating an element from a group of other elements will make it stand out.
    • Line — an arrow, line, or other similar objects can be used to indicate movement or direction and lead the eye towards an element. Where lines converge also creates a focal point. See discussion on Movement for about this good design principle.
    • Placement  — elements centered on the canvas will command the viewer’s attention, however, artists tend to avoid putting the focal point in the center of the canvas. It is best to off center it a bit and still achieve the same effect. Off center placement is much more pleasing to the eye.
    • Size or Scale — this refers to how something seems in scale or size as it is compared to the objects around it. The larger the scale the more it will stand out and attract the eye. Smaller elements tend to recede into the background.

No matter what element is chosen for emphasis it should never demand all the attention. It is important to note that emphasis is necessary, but a good composition is one in which all the elements work together for a unifying effect.

Examples of the Effective Use of Emphasis

emphasis in art

In this painting it is easy to see how the artist used light to put emphasis on the chef. He stands out as the main focal point of the entire the painting.

design element

The artist creates emphasis in this painting through the use of color. By painting the cowboy’s shirt red he was able to create a center of interest. Your eye is drawn right to his shirt.


  1. What are some ways emphasis can be added to a painting?
  2. What happens when too many elements are emphasized?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principles: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity

More Art Lessons

Basic Elements of Art, The

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

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UPDATED: 26 October

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