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Design in Art: Emphasis, Variety and Unity

Author: Lucy Lamp


What is emphasis?  What is subordination? And how do they relate to each other and the composition?

Emphasis is defined as an area or object within the artwork that draws attention and becomes a focal point.

Subordination is defined as minimizing or toning down other compositional elements in order to bring attention to the focal point.

Focal point refers to an area in the composition that has the most significance, an area that the artist wants to draw attention to as the most important aspect.

In the example below, it is very clear that the emphasis is on the red circle. It is the largest object in the composition. Conversely, although there are many gray circles, they are small in size, very muted in color, and blend in rather than stand out from the background.

The large circle is an extremely intense (pure) color which contrasts dramatically with the muted gray circles and background. The large, intensely red circle is bordered with an intense green that is a complementary color to the red, and equal in its intensity. Complementary colors (across from each other on the color wheel) with a high degree of intensity draw the most attention.

Therefore, the red circle is the focal point of the composition.


Examples of emphasis, and subordination in artwork


Emphasis using color

Richard Anuszkiewicz  Deep Magenta Square

image source

This is an example of op art, a movement that became popular in the 1960's. Op art plays with visual perception and often, color combinations or patterns that can be very difficult to look at and focus on. It is obvious that the magenta square is emphasized in the composition, and is definitely the focal point. Although the colors in the rest of the composition are fairly intense, they are much less intense than the magenta circle. They are also smaller areas than the square, thin lines rather than a large square that dominates the composition. Notice how the combination of colors and lines play with depth of space, and receding and advancing areas.


Emphasis using value (light and dark)

Kathe Kollwitz Battlefield  1907
etching mounted on wove paper
Private Collection

image source

This is a poignant portrayal of a mother searching for her dead son after a battle. The light she is carrying casts a strong light upon the dead soldier, working in the same manner as a spotlight on stage would. Her hand reaching out and touching the soldier is also emphasized. In fact, the touch of the strong hand on the chin of the soldier--whose head falls back limply--is the focal point of the image. It is as if by touching the soldier she might bring him back to life.

In contrast, the figure of the mother is bent over, and the darkest area of the composition. Her hunched, dark shape contrasts starkly with the soldier's tilted back, brightly lit head.The mother's figure is the second most important aspect of the composition. The rest of the composition consists of indistinct areas of varying shades of gray. The only other reference to a battlefield is the soldier's head next to the mother's son. This keeps us from being distracted by other details or areas in the composition and  focused on the mother's hand and the son's face.



Emphasis using complementary colors and atmospheric perspective

Paul Signac  Evening Calm, Concarneau, Opus 220 (Allegro Maestoso) 1891
Oil on canvas   25 1/2 x 32in. (64.8 x 81.3cm); Framed: 40 1/4 x 34 in. (102.2 x 86.4cm)
Metropolitan Musem of Art, New York
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

The emphasis here is on the rocky shoreline on the left lower part of the painting. Using the principles of atmospheric perspective, the foreground is more intense in color and more sharply delineated. The background is increasingly muted as it recedes in space, and the colors tend to blend together.The use of complementary colors--violet and yellow--accentuates this effect, because complementary colors draw attention, and the more intense they are, the more they attract attention. 

Signac used a system of color harmony and precisely applied strokes of color. Following and adapting the technique of Georges Seurat, he placed separate hues of color next to each otrher, without mixing them. The viewer "mixes" the colors with their eyes. Standing up close to the painting, the viewer sees only dots or strokes of color.  Moving back, the subject matter ofthe image comes into "focus". This technique creates a shimmering effect of light.


Emphasis using intensity of light

Joseph Mallord William Turner  Yacht Approaching the Coast

oil on canvas

Image courtsy of

Turner uses rays of light from a sunset on the water, with increasing intensity toward the center of the painting. Subtle variations in color create "lines" that all lead to the center of the painting. The golden shimmering light on the water leads the eye directly to the orange glow of the sunset. The yacht approaching the coast can be seen as heading toward the sunset instead of the coast, with its sails pointing toward the sunset.


Emphasis using the center of the compositon and one spot of bright color

Akseli Gallen-Kallela  The Great Black Woodpecker, 1892-94
Oil on canvas, 145 x 90 cm
Private Collection

image source: (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

The leafless limbs of the dead trees and branches create lines that all point toward the woodpecker. The tree limbs are larger and lighter in color than the surrounding trees, creating a stark contrast which emphasizes their "path" to the woodpecker. The tallest ree disappears into the sky, but its branches lead to the river, which in turn leads to the bleached branches of the dead tree in the foreground.

The woodpecker, unlike anything else in the painting, is portrayed using bold  and intense hues of black and red. It appears to be the only animated form in the painting, as if all of the surrounding landscape has paused for a moment as a tribute to the woodpecker.

Unity and Variety

Unity in an artwork creates a sense of harmony and wholeness, by using similar elements within the composition and placing them in a way that brings them all together.

Variety adds interest by using contrasting elements within the composition.

The example below is a very simple illustration of the principle, using circles of different sizes and colors to show how a composition can be unified by similarities, and how interest can be added by varying aspects of the composition.




Examples of unity and variety in artwork


Kandinsky: abstract composition

Wasily Kandinsky  Several Circles (Einige Kreise), January–February 1926.

Oil on canvas, 55 1/4 x 55 3/8 inches (140.3 x 140.7 cm).

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift  41.283. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Kandinsky was a pioneer in the development of abstract, nonrepresentational art. He believed in the expressive qualities of abstract forms, the possibilities of a universal visual language and in the abstract form to convey intellectual principles. For him, each color and shape had its own symbolic significance and properties.
In this composition, unity is provided by the repetition of circles on a neutral background. Variety is added by varying the sizes and colors of the circles, and by overlapping them.
Kandinsky had this to say:' “The circle,” claimed Kandinsky, “is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”' as quoted by Nancy Spector  in an article on the Guggenhiem website


Monet: impression of a moment

Claude Monet Rue Montorgueil in Paris, Festival of June 30, 1878, 1878.

image source webexhibits

The Impressionists limited details and used strokes of pure color on the canvas to convey the sense of a fleeting moment in time. This painting conveys the excitement and ehiliaration of a celebration on a flag-lined street. The flags are blowing in the wind, the noise of the crowd can almost be heard in this moment that Monet has presented to us. Unity is created by the repetition of the flags and the people, and the arrangement on the canvas, with all elements of the composition facing inward from the edges of the canvas. Variety is provided by variations in the sizes and position of the flags and people.



Anshutz: aesthetics of the human body

Thomas Pollock Anshutz The Ironworker's Noontime 1880   

oil on canvas       Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

image source

What appears to be a candid moment captured by the artist is in fact, a deliberately posed study of the human figure. Unity is suggested by the repetition of the figures and their muscularity. They are also enclosed within the architectural structures of the foundry. Variety is obvious in the number of different poses struck by the ironworkers, while showing off their physiques. There is a complex arrangement of poses and limbs that appear to be interconnected. The result is a lively composition of carefully composed figures.


Duccio: arrangement of the Madonna, saints and angels

Duccio di Buoninsegna The Maestà, or Maestà of Duccio 1308-1311

Tempera and gold on wood  213 cm × 396 cm (84 in × 156 in)

Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena

image source

This is an altarpiece comprised of many individual paintings representing the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels.  The varying sizes of the figures indicate their prominence and significance in relation to each other. Halos made of gold indicate their divinity. Duccio had to incorporate many figures in a relatively small space, while at the same time maintaining a strict arrangement according to an hierarchical system of holy figures. The composition is unified by the number and similarity of the figures and their focus on the Madonna and Child. Variety is provided by the difference in sizes of the figures and their placement. Duccio uses an arch shaped composition in the figures that are next to the Madonna, which adds a sense of rythm in the repetition of figures.



Willem Kalf Life with Silver Jug c. 1655-57

Oil on canvas73,8 x 65,2 cm

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dutch still life painting represents more than an arrangement of beautiful flowers, fruits,and objects. It is an allegory of life itself. Every object has symbolic significance. The inclusion of green, ripe, and decaying fruits and flowers represents the stages of life and its passing. The arrangement is unified by careful placement of the objects and fruits in a circular shape, and the strong lighting that enhances the exquisiteness and richness of the objects. The strong light also frames the still life with dark shadows created by the light.