Principles of Good Design: Emphasis

Principles of Good Design: EmphasisAnother important element of good design principles is emphasis. It’s used when an artist wants to draw attention to a specific feature or area of a painting by giving it dominance and making it stand out.

Defining Emphasis in Art

Emphasis 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 presenting 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; thus creating elements of interest, causing the eye to return again and again.

Good Design: Emphasis
no emphasis added

Adding Emphasis

The way of achieving emphasis is by creating a focal point, also called a center of interest. A focal point is an area where the viewer’s attention is drawn to and where the eye tends to center. It is created by making one area or element in the painting stand out while all other parts contribute but are subordinate.

Subordinates are other compositional elements that have been minimized or toned down 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 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 features will make it stand out.
    • Line — an arrow, line, or other similar objects can 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 to unify.

Examples of the Effective Use of Emphasis

principles good design emphasis

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

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Principles of Good Design: Balance

Principles of Good Design: Contrast

Principles of Good Design: EmphasisYou are here.

Principles of Good Design: Movement

Principles of Good Design: Proportion

Principles of Good Design: Space

Principles of Good Design: Visual Economy

Principles of Good Design: Unity

Want More Art Lessons?

After you’ve finished the lessons on the Principles of Good Design, why not move on to the Basic Art Elements? To begin, go to The Basic Elements of Art(An Introduction)

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UPDATED: 13 March

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