The Principles of Art: Emphasis, Focal Point, Contrast & Dominance

By Nina Kramer
One of Vincent Van Gogh's many self-portraits, painted in 1887.

In fine art, photography and design, several visual principles guide the composition of elements. Elements -- like color and line -- are the components of an art work. Principles -- like emphasis, focal point, dominance and contrast -- are methods of combining or putting elements together to create a work of art. Vincent Van Gogh's 1887, Self-Portrait, is an example of a masterpiece which makes use of all these principles.

Elements

Lines, shapes and colors in a photgraph.

Principles apply to the elements: line, shape, space, color, texture and form. Line can be in any direction, straight or curved and thick or thin. Shape, a closed line, can take different forms, such as a circle or square. Forms are three-dimensional shapes, and space, the area around objects. Color is a hue, such as red or blue; its value ranges from light to dark, and its intensity from bright to dull. Texture is the surface roughness as viewed.

Principle: Emphasis

Lines guide the eye to the face, the emphasis in Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Woman in Black.

Emphasis is the principle of creating a centered interest in an art work, often achieved by color contrast and by lines which direct the eye to it. Claude Monet's 1872 painting, Sunday at Argenteuil, for example, emphasizes the gathering of people on a walkway, its lines and the oval lake line direct the eye to them. The contrasting colors of light blue sky and dark-green growth add to the emphasis.

Principles: Focal Point and Dominance

The face is the focal point of Christian Man Praying by El Greco (1541 - 1614).

Focal point and dominance are related to emphasis. The focal point, or the center of interest, is the emphasized area. It is also the dominant object or objects being emphasized. Sometimes, an emphasized shape -- like an arch -- is repeated throughout a work and becomes the dominant shape. In Pierre Auguste Renoir's Dance at Bougival, for example, circular shapes dominate -- in the billowing skirt of the dancer and the round hats of both foreground and background figures.

Principle: Contrast

This design contrasts colors, natural with man-made forms and circular with straight lines.

Contrast is the principle of combining differing or opposing elements. Contrasting bright with dark colors is an example, as is smooth with rough textures or circular with angular shapes. Contrasts create emphasis and interest. Pablo Picasso's famous 1903 painting, The Old Guitarist, for example, contrasts the bright colors of the guitarist's skin with his dark robe; the angles of his arms and legs with the curves of the guitar; and the smooth texture of skin with thick cloth.

About the Author

Nina Kramer, a novelist who published her first novel in 2002, is currently working on a series of novels set in modern China. Previously, she managed the American Society of Civil Engineers' journals department. A passionate gardener and home decorator, she has a B.A. in English literature from George Washington University.