What Is Meant by "Emphasis" in Art?

An Artist Can Direct Your Eye Anywhere

Pawn of clearness that queues up with enemy
Michael H/ Digital Vision/ Getty Images

Emphasis is a principle of art which occurs any time an element of a piece is given dominance by the artist. In other words, the artist makes part of the work stand out in order to draw the viewer's eye there first.

Why Is Emphasis Important?

Emphasis is used in art to attract the viewer's attention to a particular area or object. This is typically the focal point or main subject of the artwork. For instance, in a portrait painting, the artist usually wants you to see the person's face first. They will use techniques such as color, contrast, and placement to make sure that this area is where your eye is attracted to first.

Any piece of art may have more than one area of emphasis. However, one typically dominates over all others. If two or more are given equal importance, your eye does not know how to interpret it. This confusion may lead you to not enjoy an otherwise good piece of work.

Subordination is used to describe the secondary or accent elements of the artwork. While artists emphasize the focal point, they can also de-emphasize the other elements to ensure the main subject stands out. An artist may, for instance, use red on the subject while leaving the rest of the painting in very muted browns. The viewer's eye is automatically drawn to this pop of color.

One might argue that all worthy works of art employ emphasis. If a piece lacks this principle, it may seem monotonous and boring to the eye. However, some artists play with the lack of emphasis on purpose and use it to create a visually impactful piece.

Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans" (1961) are a perfect example of the lack of emphasis. When the series of canvases are hung on the wall, the entire assembly lacks any real subject. Yet, the magnitude of the collection's repetition leaves an impression nonetheless.

How Artists Add Emphasis

Frequently, an emphasis is achieved by means of contrast. Contrast can be achieved in a variety of ways and artists often employ more than one technique in a single piece.

A contrast in color, value, and texture can certainly draw you to a particular area. Likewise, when one object is significantly larger or in the foreground, it becomes the focal point because the perspective or depth draw us in. 

Many artists will also strategically place their subject in the composition in areas that are known to attract attention. That may be directly in the center, but more often than not it is off to one side or another. It might also be isolated from other elements through placement, tone, or depth.

Yet another way to add emphasis is to use repetition. If you have a series of similar elements then interrupt that pattern in some way, that naturally gets noticed.

Looking for Emphasis

As you study art, remain mindful of emphasis. Look at how each piece of art naturally directs your eye around the piece. What techniques did the artist use to achieve this? What did they want you to see at first glance? 

Sometimes the emphasis is very subtle and at other times it is anything but. These are the little surprises that artists leave us and discovering them is what makes creative works so interesting.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Ackerman, Gerald M. "Lomazzo's Treatise on Painting." The Art Bulletin 49.4 (1967): 317–26. Print.
  • Galenson, David W. "Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Mayer, Ralph. "The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques." 3rd ed. New York: Viking Press, 1991.
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Esaak, Shelley. "What Is Meant by "Emphasis" in Art?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/definition-of-emphasis-in-art-182434. Esaak, Shelley. (2023, April 5). What Is Meant by "Emphasis" in Art? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-emphasis-in-art-182434 Esaak, Shelley. "What Is Meant by "Emphasis" in Art?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-emphasis-in-art-182434 (accessed June 9, 2023).