Emphasis

As the first cold snap of winter sets in, it’s important to exercise our creative muscles to help keep our sanity. As I write this, we are a third of the way through our #FernieArtStreak and it’s great to see everyone making it a daily practice. By the time you read this it will all be over, but please pop down to the Arts Station to see the ArtStreak gallery show anytime in February. 

I’m on part three of this seven-part series about the Principles of Art which are balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity/variety. Let’s dig into what emphasis means in terms of creating a composition.

From my early days in grade-school art class, I remember the teacher talking about creating a focal point in a drawing. A focal point is designed (as you might imagine) to draw the eye of the viewer, which keeps them anchored to the composition. For the developing artist the idea of having a single strong area of focus is low hanging fruit and it won’t hold the viewer’s attention for long—an interesting composition will have multiple areas of emphasis and we should be keen to develop them to different levels, so they work together. 

Emphasis is a largely invisible technique with no right or wrong approach. Like that old aphorism, “You put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble,” spoken out loud, it sounds wrong. In visual art when emphasis is done well you don’t notice it, but when it’s heavy handed or poorly accomplished, it can make the viewer feel uneasy. 

There are many ways to create emphasis. A complimentary splash of colour like yellow on blue will draw attention like a star on a nighttime background. Think of how Van Gogh used that very technique in his famous Starry Night painting. At one point in his life Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo and said, “There is no blue without yellow and orange, and if you put in the blue you must put in the yellow and orange, too.” If you start looking, you can see how Vincent applied this idea to many of his most beloved paintings. A bright colour on a dark background (like a house window in a night scene) or a dark colour on a light background (like a silhouette of a person) both create emphasis in their own way. Whichever tone appears more sparingly will likely have more emphasis. 

Detail is another great way to add emphasis. Have you ever noticed how the ‘blur background’ filter works on a Zoom call to focus your eyes on the speaker? That same technique can be used in any medium to draw attention to the areas of focus: give them more detail and the viewer will be drawn to examine them more closely. Blur out background parts to decrease their emphasis. 

Another technique, convergence, can help lead people to your focal point. Using line direction to draw the viewer along can give the point of convergence extra emphasis. The classic railroad track photo is a great example: stand someone a little ways up the tracks to take a photo and those rails will literally lead you to them. Any kind of perspective lines will act in the same manner—a meandering stream, an angular mountain, or power lines—with some careful thought we can use all kinds of shapes and lines to converge the viewer’s journey towards our main area of emphasis. Keep in mind a line doesn’t have to be a line; it can be a series of objects or lines that appear connected because of proximity or similarity. 

Location also plays an important role in how we emphasize things. Something that is isolated from a group of similar objects will carry more weight. A larger item in the foreground will be naturally emphasized, and there are times we have to push them back by lowering the contrast or drawing the attention away from them. Objects that are more central lend themselves to emphasis, especially when there are other elements that converge towards them. 

These are just a handful of examples of ways to create emphasis in a work. Creating a stable hierarchy of emphasis will help captivate the viewer and hold them in your composition. Sometimes if there is no clear hierarchy, we feel an unease as a viewer, so pay attention to what your gut is telling you. Stand back and sort out what needs addressing: are there two competing focal points? Do our primary, secondary and tertiary focal points form a stable triangle? If not, is that on purpose? When you stand back and look objectively (as much as possible) does the piece feel settled, or does it feel confusing and muddled? If it’s unsettling there’s a good chance the emphasis is out of place somewhere. 

Creating a compelling composition is a complex thing that requires shifting from right to left brain and back again a hundred times. Understanding and using emphasis is another great tool in the toolkit to engage people with your art. There’s no one way to accomplish the correct emphasis so be bold and creative and be diligent at sorting out where you want to direct the viewer—working until it feels settled—I can’t emphasize enough how important emphasis is.