Proportion, Emphasis & Economy

In order to have something to emphasize or to create a proportional relationship you need shapes.  The simplest definition of a shape is a line that turned back and connected with itself.  Or you could define a shape as a two dimensional closed form.  Any shape can be filled in with any color, value or texture.  What you put in a shape has no bearing on it's shapeness.  Shapes come in two general shapenesses.  Since shapeness isn't a real word we'll call them Organic Shapes and Geometric Shapes.

You are already familiar with geometric shapes.  Circles, squares, rectangles, all of the types of triangles and -gons (isosceles triangles, hexagons and octagons and such) and ellipses (like the orbits of the planets). Geometric shapes tend to be thought of as man made, but that's not quite true. Sometimes they exist in nature, although a hexagon in nature might not be geometrically perfect.

Organic shapes are thought of as natural shapes.  However, there's a tricky way to think about this.  Organic shapes are not just shapes taken directly from nature.  They are a much larger group that includes the shapes we find in nature and shapes inspired by the irregular lines and shapes we see in nature.

Proportion deals with the scale of elements in a composition relative to each other.  In human terms, proportion, or scale, is strongly related in relation to the human body and it's relationship to the space around it.  A strong understanding of proportion can be used to add depth, order or disorder to composition in order to re-enforce the artist's message,


Most people raised in Western Civilization learned at a relatively young age that a sense of depth, or distance, could be created by making objects closer to the viewer larger, and those more distant objects smaller.  By using proportion in this way, a composition can be given a sense of depth as in the painting below by Andrew Wyeth.  Notice also that the colors in the foreground are brighter and more pure than the colors in the background.  This adds to the sense of depth.

In Eastern cultures, a sense of depth is often conveyed by placement – the closer an element is to the top of a composition, the closer the viewer perceives it to be.  And it will often be perceived to be further away if it is closer to the bottom of the composition.  The print below, by Ando Hiroshige, uses a little of both the Eastern and Western sense of depth.

In conjunction with depth and distance, proportion gives us another important attribute that can be used to clarify a message.  Emphasis: the creation of dominant and subordinant elements in a composition.  Points of empahisis are created to enhance the visual weight or psychological impact of an element in a composition.  Not only are larger objects perceived as closer, they are also more dominant than other objects.  The closer something is, the more important it seems.  Conversely, smaller objects can appear further away, and thus are perceived as less important than larger objects.

This emphasis, or dominance and subordination, allows the designer to create a visual order out of an otherwise potentially chaotic composition.  You can lead that viewer all through your garden, through your building, through your advertisement, or through your painting, but if you don’t provide the viewer with a point of interest, then you will lose viewer. The emphasis in a design is the message that you want to convey.   As with balance, composition can make use of dominance and subordination to create a sense of chaos.  Do you see order or chaos in the following painting by Caravaggio?

And like balance, proportion can be used to enhance the emotional qualities of the piece. Larger images are more evocative and emotionally powerful, especially when the proportion not natural (large man looming over a small woman to create a sense of fear:

Proportion - Man threatening woman

Or a large woman conquering a smaller world to reinforce a strong female message:

Proportion - Woman conquering city

Manipulating order and chaos, and the dominance and subordination of culturally powerful imagery (guns, babies and religious symbols are all examples of culturally loaded imagery) can create a jarring emotional impact to reinforce a message. These same properties can be used to render the piece emotionally flat, if required.

Advertisements are great examples to look at for the use of the elements and principles of art.  Below is an example of scale used in a clever way in a Tamiflu commercial.  The message begins: Sometimes, what we suffer from is bigger than we think. The flu is a big deal,...  The visual message clearly re-enforces that message.  At the same time it relates the way we feel when we're sick; our bodies feel all weird, it's a little harder to do simple tasks, even our own homes become uncomfortable places.

Emphasis can also be achieved in a few other ways.  Emphasis can be created in a composition through the use of a focal point.  Just as it sounds, focal point draws your attention to a particular point in the composition.  There are several techniques used to emphasize a focal point.  In realistic art the focal point is usually quite easy to spot as we have seen above.  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 as in this work by Sol Lewitt.

If the rest of the elements are geometric, organic shapes will stand out as in this work by Lisa Corinne Davis.

If most of the elements are dark, a splash of light color will catch the eye as in this work by Ingrid Calame.

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


An element placed in the center of the work or placed at the center of the lines of perspective will usually be perceived as a focal point as in this work by Zak Smith.

If a painting has people in it and all eyes in the painting look at one element or subject, this is similar to placing an element at the center of lines of perspective and that element will be perceived as the focus of the work.  This is common in history painting. In the following work Benjamin West the dying General Wolfe is more or less in the center of the painting, more or less at the center of the lines of perspective, and definitely the focus of all of the eyes in the painting.

Economy in design simply means keeping it simple.  If you can remove an element from a composition  and your composition still works, then leave that element out.  However, economy in art can be tricky to manage.  You don’t want to include more than is needed, but be sure to include all that is needed to create an intelligent composition.  If you leave too much out, viewers might not get the message or the composition might just be boring.

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