-- is the ability to attract attention and make an element stand out.

Most images need a focal point or points to provide visual emphasis. These are elements that attract the eye and act as a visual
climax, stressing a key point or points within the composition.

Without emphasis, your eye tends to wander and is never satiated.
Focal point devices to keep in mind are color, contrast, depth of field, isolation, light, placement, perspective, and size. One is often played off against another; for example, a limited depth of field may be used to isolate the primary subject. Secondary points of interest, known as accents, can direct the eye to parts of a composition that have less visual value than the primary focal point, but are still important for understanding the work. Yet sometimes an imagemaker will purposely create an ambiguous composition without a single focal point by deploying a multiplicity of points; this draws attention to the entire surface of the work instead of its individual elements.

Emphasis gives part of a design particular prominence.

It is almost impossible to look at Henri Rousseau's
The Dream and not first notice the nude figure. The painting has many objects: lions, jungle flowers and trees, a bird, but our eye is drawn to the figure. This is a concept of focal point.
Henri Rousseau The Dream

Focus and Emphasis

Focus and emphasis promote unity by steering the viewer’s eye to one spot in the composition.  Focus orients the element of a composition toward this spot, while emphasis brings out one part of the composition as dominant.  Increased scale, stronger coloration, and more psychologically intense shapes are a few means used to increase emphasis.  A composition may have more than one area of focus or emphasis.  Often a strong dominate area may balance off satellite areas of lesser focus.

Isamu Noguchi Big Boy, 1952


Emphasis is also referred to as point of focus, or interruption. It marks the locations in a composition which most strongly draw the viewers attention. Usually there is a primary, or main, point of emphasis, with perhaps secondary emphases in other parts of the composition. The emphasis is usually an interruption in the fundamental pattern or movement of the viewers eye through the composition, or a break in the rhythm.

The artist or designer uses emphasis to call attention to something, or to vary the composition in order to hold the viewers interest by providing visual "surprises."

uelsmann_small_woods.jpg (115847 bytes) Jerry Uelsmann Small Woods Where I Met Myself 1967

Emphasis can be achieved in a number of ways. Repetition creates emphasis by calling attention to the repeated element through sheer force of numbers. If a color is repeated across a map, the places where certain colors cluster will attract your attention, in this instance graphing varying rates of mortality from cardiovascular disease.

Contrast achieves emphasis by setting the point of emphasis apart from the rest of its background. Various kinds of contrasts are possible. The use of a neutral background isolates the point of emphasis.

john_gutmann_Strange_visitors.jpg (51724 bytes) John Gutmann  Strange Visitors smith_burial_at_sea.jpg (25553 bytes) W. Eugene Smith Burial at Sea uelsmann_pool_door.jpg (66377 bytes) Jerry Uelsmann Untitled 1975
Contrast of color, texture, or shape will call attention to a specific point.

Contrast of size or scale will as well.

Placement in a strategic position will call attention to a particular element of a design.  

winogrand_untitled_1954.jpg (41146 bytes) Garry Winogrand Untitled 1954

One method used to attract attention in the design of a page or work of art is the use of a focal point. A focal point draws your attention to the most important element on the page. There are several techniques used to emphasize the most important object on a page.

Ways to Create a Focal Point

Emphasis by Contrast

In realistic art the focal point is usually quite easy to spot. Larger figures, usually found in the foreground, provide a focal point. Even in non-realistic art, it is usually easy to spot the focal point. If most of the figures are horizontal, a vertical element will stand out as a focal point.

If the rest of the elements are irregular, a geometric shape will stand out. If most of the elements are dark, a splash of light color will catch the eye. 

garrywinogrand_untitled_1950s.jpg (73034 bytes) Garry Winogrand Untitled 1950s

Contrast in color

Emphasis by Isolation 

If most of the elements in a work of art are grouped closely together, an object by itself stands out as a focal point.   

dorthea_lange_white_angel_bread_line.jpg (27228 bytes) Dorothea Lange White Angel Bread Line  1932

Emphasis by Placement 

An object placed in the center will often be perceived as a focal point. If all eyes in the painting look at one object, or if an object is placed at the center of the lines of perspective, that object will be perceived as the focus of the work. 

Hindenburg.jpg (148682 bytes) hindenburg2.jpg (641822 bytes) Sam Shere The Hindenburg Disaster 1937

Objects on the top will dominate objects on the bottom of a frame.

frankenstein.jpg (261270 bytes)

The focal point in Gericault's
Raft of the Medusa was created using a pattern of compositional lines. The arms and legs of the sailors, the floorboards of the raft, and the angle of the sail all direct attention toward the rescue ship in the upper right corner.

Theodore Gericault Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19

There are many parallels to the Raft of the Medusa and the Presidency of George W. Bush. The Captain of the Medusa was an incompetent, a nobleman who owed his appointment to the ministerial favor and not seamanship. George W. Bush is also incompetent, a rich man's son who gained the presidency through favor and deceit, rather than statesmanship. As politician and president, he is a demagogue, a leader who make use of popular prejudices, false claims and promises in order to gain and hold power. Both these men, the captain of the Medusa, Hugnes de Chaumareges and George W. Bush are murderers. The making of the Raft of the Medusa was the result of the "the Captain and many of his senior officers who, caring only for their own safety, brutally commandeered the seaworthy life boats, leaving it to the lower ranks and the soldiers to try their luck on a raft." The abandoned people left on the ship built a raft sixty five feet in length and twenty-eight feet wide out of the masts and beams, crudely lashed together before the Medusa sank.

One hundred and fifty people, including one woman, were herded into the slippery beams. So closely were the people huddled together that it was impossible to move a single step. Mutiny, murder, cannibalism and madness followed. After fifteen days, only fifteen survived.

The people on the Medusa were victims of class struggle. The people on the Raft of George Bush-his party and regime-are the victims of their own rationale, their conservative elitism, their hunger for political and social power and their unilateral military ambitions. It took a very sick group of people to dream up a phony war from the tragedy of 9/11, against a country which had nothing to do with 9/11.

In my photograph, I want to show the leaders of this regime as royalty without clothes. As the fools they really are.

The president is seen wearing a McDonalds gold paper crown. His despair is the result of a mind distorted by extremism. By the lies, torture, pain and death he has caused. He is the Lear of all inept politicians. He holds the naked body of "Condi Rice". She is his ideal black woman. His brain-dead muse. Secretary of Defense "Rummy" lies face down nearby, holding his glasses, wrapped in a flag of the nation. Former Secretary of State Powell is pictured dressed only in military epaulets holding the "proof" he presented at the United Nations for justification for the war against Iraq. The vice-president and his wife are shown as an operatic star and diva straining to proselytize their doctrines in song. Barbara Bush is tied to a mast. She holds a
sun-reflector under her chin-representing her joy in basking in the sunlight of power yet always looking like "The Quaker Oats Man". Near her is a conservative minister trying to hang himself while a sailor performs fellatio on him. Finally, an African American waves the flag of his mother country as he sights the Medusa's survivors, a Chinese junk and a Space Ship.

Joel-Peter Witkin

Absence of Focal Point:

A definite focal point is not a necessity for successful design. It is a tool that artists may or maynot use, depending on what is desired. An artist may wish to emphasis the entire surface of a composition over any individual elements.

An artist's theme might suggest the absence of a focal point. In Andy Warhol's painting there are a hundred repetitions of precisely the same image with no change, no contrast , and no point of emphasis. But the repetitive quality is the basic point and dictated the design.


100 Cans oil on canvas 72 x 52 in (182.9 x 132.1 cm) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo