Art Term Tuesday: Emphasis

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

A quilt with a repeating fan pattern (49 blocks, 7 rows of 7)-the fans are in the bottom left corner of each square, with red half circles, yellow and white rays, and a black background. The trim is yellow triangles against white.
Unknown Artist, American. Fans Quilt. Probably Minnesota. Rayon, wool, and army uniform wool with embroidery, 1922-1923. Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of Margaret Cavigga, 1985.23.7. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

As you view the quilt above, currently on exhibit in Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts, notice how your eyes travel across the work. Do any areas seem more important than others? Like most quilts, this fan quilt is composed of repeating blocks; so, probably not. If, however, we consider the quilt in its original context as a bed covering, the pattern of contrasting colors and shapes would make that bed the centerpiece of the room. This is due to the principle of art called emphasis.

Like a bolded word in a paragraph of text, artists use emphasis to draw their viewers’ attention to the focal point, or main subject, of an artwork. A work of art may have multiple areas of emphasis or none at all! In a representational or narrative work, one element tends to stand out among all the rest to help tell a clear story and avoid confusion. Emphasis is often created through contrast in color, shape, value, or size. Artists can also employ line, whether actual or implied, to lead viewers to a focal point.

An abstract print of swirling, tornado like forms in black and white. One form, centered, is blue and red.
Steven Sorman, American, b. 1948. acting like ourselves, State 1. Mezzotint and aquatint on paper, 1989. Gift of the Artist in memory of David Shaprio, 2014.151. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

What stands out most in the Steven Sorman work above? The red-orange and blue shape in the center! It is in color, while the entire rest of the work is black-and-white, and it is more flat and simple than the busier areas of the background. Further, the pale blue is a near complement to the vibrant red-orange, so our eyes are drawn to the borders between those two colors. 

A photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in a crowd. His face is front-and-center, focused by the line of the shoulder of the man who stands directly in front of him.
Ernest Withers, American, 1922-2007. Dr. Martin Luther King is Confronted: Dr. King is stopped by police at Medgar Evers’ Funeral. Jackson, Mississippi, June 1963, from the I Am A Man portfolio. Silver gelatin print, 1963. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2003.11.6. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In Dr. Martin Luther King is Confronted, above, King’s expression is so compelling that it would likely command our attention regardless of the rest of the composition. To ensure it does, Ernest Withers expertly framed his face using the heads and shoulders of the figures in the foreground and the building façade in the background. Photographers have another tool in their belt when it comes to creating emphasis: adjusting the focus of their camera. Dr. King’s face is the sharpest area of the image, while the rest is at least partially blurred. Taken at Medgar Evers’ funeral, other photographs may tell a more complete story of the event, but the goal here was instead to emphasize King’s psychological state at the moment he is approached by police at his friend’s funeral.

A portrait of painter George McCullough painting a landscape.
Nancy Lutz, American, b. 1949. George. Oil on panel, 20th century. Gift of the Artist. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Rather than a straightforward documentation of an event, Withers’ photograph becomes a portrait, an artwork that focuses on a specific person. Our eyes are naturally attracted to faces (even looking for them when they’re not there) but artists can use a variety of methods to emphasize different attributes of their portrait subjects. What did Nancy Lutz most want us to know about George, above? He’s shown painting en plein air, brush and palette in hand, so we know he’s an artist (spoiler: it’s George McCullough, Fort Wayne Art School instructor), but a bright ray of sunlight highlights his face. The low point-of-view also means we’re literally looking up to him, but the emphasis on George’s personality and intellect implies that he was figuratively looked up to as well.

A painting of a landscape-it shows a winding river, flush with the banks and dotted with trees.
Homer Davisson, American, 1866-1957. Pool in the Katerkill. Oil on canvas, 19th-early 20th century. Gift of Mrs. Homer Davisson, 1958.04. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Homer Davisson depicts a creek meandering through a shaded glen, and the majority of the painting is quite dark and cool-toned, so we’re drawn to the bright sunlight peeking through the trees. Due to perspective, as the creek’s winding banks recede into the distance they also create a line that leads directly to that bright spot (like a light at the end of a tunnel). Notice the position of this focal point: Davisson employed the “rule of thirds” to create a pleasing composition, placing it a third of the way in from two sides of the painting.

Lars Nilsson for Bill Blass Ltd., Swedish, b. 1966. Evening Dress. Silk organza with embroidered lace overlay, Fall 2002. Loan from Bill Blass Group LLC. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Designers use emphasis, too! An astute tour group pointed out to me that in the quilt-inspired dress, left, the brightest color in the pattern is placed at the top of the garment. While the quilt-blocked fabric could be quite busy, the designer (in this case not Bill Blass himself but Lars Nilsson for Blass Ltd.) ensured that the model wears the dress, not the other way around, by drawing attention up to the wearer’s face. You’ll see a similar technique in many of the garments in Fort Wayne’s Fashion Designer: voluminous ruffles adorn the neckline of an otherwise simple evening gown and the layered collar and lapel of a suit frame the face.

The next time you’re in front of an artwork, try to take note of the first thing that captures your attention–is there one area of emphasis? See if you can decipher which techniques the artist used to draw your attention to it. What makes it the most important for their message or story?

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