It is important for a designer to know how to control the attention of someone viewing their artwork. This lesson will investigate how to control attention through emphasis -- how to make objects easy or difficult to notice. There will also be a discussion of the relationship between size and scale.

In this lesson you will:

Learn methods for controlling where a viewer will look in a composition.

Explore how to make an object look completely out of scale.

Make a photomontage where you determine what will be noticed first, second and last (a hidden object).


The importance of this cannot be over emphasized!

A designer needs to know how to control the attention of the viewers of their artwork. You cannot succeed in art without this knowledge.

Dominance describes a situation where something dominates (is more important or more noticeable than its surroundings). Information is rarely of uniform interest in art (except in wallpaper). Most art is used to communicate -- to tell a story or present a point of view. There is usually a focal point, a place where the action begins. You should be able to control what will be noticed first, what is dominant in an image, and where the viewer's attention will go from there.

When there is dominance there must be subordination (things lower in ranking). In art this means that some things get more attention and some get less. Figure dominates ground for instance.

This is a matter of emphasis. Some situations call for strong visual dominance such as attracting the viewer's attention to the main subject of an image. Some situations call for more subtle emphasis such as leading the viewer through the composition and directing them to a secondary focal point. The designer should be able to use all levels of control over the viewer's attention. This includes the ability to put something in an image that may escape detection for a long time (and then be a delight to find).

There are three major methods for controlling emphasis in a visual image: contrast, placement and isolation.


Contrast is the opposite of similarity. Check out the section on similarity.
The objective of contrast is to produce maximum visibility. The more contrast there is the more noticeable an item is. Learning how to use contrast is a matter of knowing how much is needed and how to achieve that contrast. Contrast can be achieved by:

In these examples note how color and value affect visibility.

One of the greatest possible contrasts in art is the difference between black and white (value contrast). Color contrasts can be strong but usually not as strong as value contrasts. Bright colors are more attractive (attract attention) than dull colors. There is room for a great deal of manipulation in color and value. That is one of the reasons that color is so difficult to use well.

To make something stand out use strong value contrast. If color is used make it bright, preferably against a dull background. Different colors that are the same value do not show as much as you would expect (top right example).



Size: When it comes to being noticed B I G G E R is always better. There is a place for all different sizes in the scheme of things. It is not always desirable to be noticed first. Learning how to use size to control emphasis is important.

Size, as you will soon learn, also relates to relative scale.



Shape: An unusual shape can call attention to itself but it is not as strong a contrast as size or value/color.

Other contrasts like direction and texture can also be used to control emphasis.

Taken together all of these contrasts affect visibility, regardless of where the object is placed.

Where items are in relation to the format and each other can affect emphasis. You will study this more under gestalt. It is a good idea to read ahead about gestalt to better understand this section.



To the format: The most important place in the format, by far, is the center (1). That is where the viewer looks first and so anything that is there is likely to be noticed first. The further from the center, the less noticeable an item becomes.

As items contact the outside edges they become slightly more noticeable (3). That is because they relate to the format, which is always a dominant shape in any composition.

Objects that overlap the edge of format call more attention to themselves (2). They seem to be going out or coming in to the composition. This works well if it is not overdone and the format shape is simple and clear. These objects can seem to be in front of the format.

To other items in the composition: Once you establish a primary focal point you can use proximity, similarity and continuance relationships (gestalt) to control what is to be noticed next.




Proximity: An overlapping, touching or close object is likely to be seen next (in that order) after a primary object. The more visible (contrasting) the object is, the more likely this is to happen. Where you place objects is important.

When using a collage to make an image, try several different placements of the elements to get the effect you want before gluing.



An object that is the same color, size and/or shape will form a group with the primary object and be seen next. The more alike the two objects are the stronger the link. Texture can also be an affective similarity device.

Choose images carefully. It may be necessary to exchange or modify elements to make similarity relationships clearer.




If the primary object points or looks at an object, that can direct the viewer's attention to the secondary object. Proximity and similarity may be stronger but when two or more techniques are used together the effect is the strongest.

Preview the information on continuance in the gestalt section. Continuance must be set up carefully to work.




Isolation is a kind of placement -- where something is put. An item that stands apart from its surroundings will be more noticeable. This is not likely to make an item be noticed first but can make one item stand out.

In the example to the left note that you see the group of red circles first, but the circle you notice is the one that is isolated.

Where you put objects in the format and in relationship to other objects can strongly affect emphasis.

What would you do if you wanted to make sure that an object was noticed first? You would make sure it was large, brightly colored and had high contrast (use an extreme range of values). It would also be sharply focused (fuzzy images are too soft looking to grab attention) and placed as near to the center of the format as possible. The primary object would stand out from its surroundings by contrasting against them (light against dark of vice versa) and be a different color and texture from the background.

To control what would be seen second you would use a highly visible object (not as much as the first object) that was in a close proximity relationship to the first. It would be similar looking in some way(s) like color. The first object could be looking at or pointing at it.

If you wanted to hide an object in a composition you would reverse all of the characteristics of the primary object. Make it small and low in contrast to its surroundings. It should be similar in color, value and texture to what is behind it. It is possible to make an object quit visible but unnoticed in this way.


Proportion is a design principle that has to do with the relationship between size and scale. It is mentioned here to give you a chance to have some fun with the project for this lesson.

Size is how large (or small) an item actually is. It is a measurable quantity. The format you use for a project is a certain size.

Scale is a relative size. It refers to how large (or small) an item seems. There has to be some standards against which to measure scale. You can make a scale model of a car that will fit in your hand. Next to a real car the model is much smaller in scale.



It is possible to make an object appear different in scale without changing its size. The fortune cookie to the left is about life size. The one in the picture below appears to be quite large in scale. They are both the same size.

The fortune cookie appears large because there are buildings in front of it. If It were the same size, but in front of all the buildings, it would look like a normal fortune cookie that was closer to us and the city scene was in the distance behind it. To make the illusion of scale work it is important that you control where the objects are in space relative to one another. You will learn more about space in a later lesson.



Student example #1

Student example #2

Student example #3

The hidden objects may not be visible in the reproductions of the student examples.

Surrealism is an art movement that originated in the 1920s. It is based on dream like imagery and its best-known proponent is Salvador Dali.

A better artist to study for this lesson is René Magritte. Magritte was a Belgian artist who painted realistic objects in unusual configurations.


Make a collage (photomontage) that shows an object very out of scale (either very large or very small). You will place that image into a photographic background. You must choose, and orgaanize the information, so that you determine what will be the first thing a viewer notices when they look at the image. Also determine, and control, what the viewer should see second. Hide an object in the image. The hidden object should be visible and a surprise when it is found (it should look out of place in its surroundings).

There must be at least three photographic images used: one for the out of scale object, one for the background (can include the second thing to be seen) and one for the hidden object.

A montage is a collection of objects that form a unified whole. A photomontage is a collage using photographs that are put together to form the illusion of a single image. The fortune cookie in the city above is a photomontage made in Adobe Photoshop. A photomontage can look normal, or like the fortune cookie picture, surreal

You have to have an open mind to make this sort of an image. Whenever you use collage you have to work with what you find. It is usually a good idea to let the pictures suggest the composition rather than look for pictures that satisfy a preconceived image.

Look for a main subject. It should be large, clear, colorful and have high contrast. Next look for a background to use with the first image that will make it look out of scale. It is much easier to make something look large, and show up first, than to make it look small. The background should be large enough to fill up most of the format for the image (it is possible to piece several pictures and/or colored papers together for a background). Make your subject look at least 10 times its normal size.

To do that you have to place the subject in the background so that it is clear where it is in space. If you put it on top of other items it will look close, not large. Set the object into the background by letting some features of the background appear to be in front of the subject. This may require some fancy cutting. Try cutting a slot in the background picture and setting the subject in the slot.

The thing to be seen second can be a feature of the background or a separate image collaged with the others. Test the effectiveness of your choices by asking at least two other people what they notice first and what they notice second in your image (before gluing anything down). If you have planned carefully they should see what you have arranged for them to see.

Hiding an object requires you to place that object against a similar looking area in the image. Look for places with texture and find an object to hide that is similar in color and texture. The hidden object must be visaable and look out of place where it is hidden. Have some fun and see how visible an object you can hide.


The finished collage should fit comfortably on a single page in your book. Use a border (a combining device) that complements the colors in the image and makes it look more finished.

Label this project EMPHASIS.

You should be able to tell someone what they should see first, and give three reasons why, and what they should see next, and give two reasons why. Or, ask several people what they see first and next and why. Let someone try to find your hidden object without your help.


© 2006 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.