In the last few months I have taken to mentoring a few painters looking to improve as well as talk more with painters around the world via online meetings. It has been a luxury to be in contact with so many people and one of the positives to come out of the worldwide lock-down.
In all the many discussions and critiques I have been asked for there has been a repeating theme. Most artists are struggling to achieve an appropriate level of contrast in their work. Quite a few of them understand that this is an area they need to work on but have no idea how to train their brains to self-critique in this matter.
By the end of this blog entry, I hope to have explained what contrast is, how you can identify your levels of contrast in your own work, and how you can achieve appropriate levels of contrast in your compositions.
Before continuing with this blog, please read through Color Theory: Ultra Basics! for an introduction to Color Theory.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary Contrast is defined as:
1a: juxtaposition of dissimilar elements (such as color, tone, or emotion) in a work of art
b: degree of difference between the lightest and darkest parts of a picture
Contrast in art can be explained as having a diverse representation of light and dark values to increase interest, clarity and depth. In order for a piece of art to stand out and catch our eye, we need to have varying degrees of contrast. Most of the time when we discuss contrast in miniature painting, and even in traditional and digital illustration, people are referring to light vs. dark contrast. However, this is not the only level of contrast that exists in art or in our life.
Knowing what contrast is doesn’t make it easier to understand. Crossing the hurdle from knowing the definition of this term and implementing the term is the most challenging for any artist. Before we dive into more about contrast in art, I want to take a moment to talk about contrast in life. By doing this, it will get you to think about how contrast affects your daily life and why it is so important.
Without even realizing it, we experience contrast in our every day life. Contrast surrounds us and we have a passive understanding of it. For instance, when people have a cup of tea or coffee, they usually have it alongside cookies or cakes. Why is that? It’s because the juxtaposition of a strong, somewhat bitter drink with a sweet, crumbly dessert helps enhance the flavors. This is contrast of flavor.
Likewise, many people crave sweet and savory mixed together. Sugars and Salts enhance flavors when paired together. From an evolutionary standpoint, our brains seek out sweet smelling and tasting foods because they have juice (water), sugar (calories) and vitamins that keep us healthy. Savory items we crave because they have protein (help build muscle and keep blood sugars stable) and minerals (such as iron) that keep us healthy and balanced. When we get both sweet and savory in one bite, the pleasure centers of our brains light up.
If you keep up with the trends by searching through Pinterest for Fashion and Design there are quite a few examples of contrast being used. For the last couple of years the popular palette (here in Australia) has been gold, rose gold, pink, navy blue and silver in quite a bit of fashion and housewares. At first glance, many people might consider these colors an odd pairing, however, they hit all the right buttons with regards to various layers of contrast.
The navy blue provides the dark, cool, color to anchor the design palette. The light grey provides a contrasting lighter, slightly warmer tone in the color scheme. The pink is slightly darker in value and warmer in temperature to the light grey. The metallic finishes provide a shiny, reflective surface that contrasts with matte finishes when juxtaposed. Adding some pattern adds texture to the composition. All of these elements compliment one another and help enhance the design. The colors are bold, yet calming and peaceful. They provide a warmth with the pinks and rose golds. It adds a clean feeling from the simple lines, simple patterns. We find all of this very pleasing. This is all contrast at work! Contrast isn’t just light vs dark but shiny vs matte, texture vs smooth, cool vs warm, etc.
Take a look around the room you are in. Take about 5 minutes and quietly observe. Can you identify different levels of contrast?
I mentioned value in a previous paragraph and this is the part many artists struggle with in regards to contrast because it requires us to observe and think more critically about our work. We have to rely on our own observational skills to judge whether or not we have an appropriate level of value contrast in our work rather than relying solely on color contrast.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary Value is defined as:
7a: relative lightness or darkness of a color : LUMINOSITY
b: the relation of one part in a picture to another with respect to lightness and darkness
The 7a definition is the important one here and there is a key word: “relative”. There are colors that are objectively dark and objectively light. Black and White are examples. However, you cannot discuss the value of a color in a vacuum. You have to compare colors when they are in close proximity to each other in order to judge whether or not they provide enough contrast. Values of colors are relative to one another.
In addition, if I tell someone they need to work on their contrast that does not mean I want to you to add pure white to the highlights and pure black to the highlights. I always have color mixed into both. What I am saying is that your lightest value isn’t appearing on the white end of the value spectrum when compared to your darkest color. From observation, when people get the feedback that they need to improve their contrast they seem to misunderstand that to mean they need to brighten highlights. This is not true because values of colors are relative to one another. So, if you need to up your contrast you need to look at improving your shadows and your highlights. Not just one or the other.
In order to understand what values are present in your color schemes you first have to become comfortable with a value scale.
This is a value scale. It is used as a guide to illustrate that your lightest value should be around values 1 – 3. Your mid-range values should be around values 4 – 6. Your darkest values should be around 7 – 9. You need to have a pretty good spread of values from one end of the spectrum to the other. When I say someone has middling values only on their artwork, that means all of their colors are sitting between values 5 – 7. This provides a rather flat composition where nothing really stands out. It is dull. It doesn’t “Pop”.
In my 2-Day seminars I run people through the exercise of creating a black and white value scale. This is something I had to do in art school and it really helped me to start to wrap my head around value and contrast. When people run through this exercise, they quickly find out that they struggle with contrast. It is uncomfortable for many of us to use such bright and such dark colors in a composition. It doesn’t feel natural or we are afraid that we are going to irrevocably ruin our art.
Take a look at the digital illustrations below. The top one is from an article, “9 Common Mistakes in Digital Art”. The image on the left is a completely desaturated version of the color image on the right. You can see that nothing stands out. It is very muddy. It is hard to get a clear picture of what is going on.
By comparison, if you look at the bottom two images by Jonathan Guzi, you can clearly read what is happening in the image when the color is removed. While still remaining dark in overall composition and values chosen, there is a good balance with lighter values to help direct the eye and give you a sense of drama and weight.
Understanding what value is is really important to create knock-out art. This is something you must grapple with if you want to produce pieces that stun audiences. This is not something you can skim over and hope you’ll get by in the art world. This along with understanding color relationships is vital for producing quality artwork.
When you are working on your art, you need to train your brain to recognize whether you have enough contrast and you need to force yourself to be comfortable with contrast in your work. When people ask me for feedback on their contrast I reply, rather frustratingly, “If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer.” Most people can tell their contrast is off. Knowing what needs fixing is the hurdle in the learning process. However, you have a tool at your fingertips if you have a smartphone or computer.
Take a good quality photo of your piece. Open up an art program such as Krita, Photoshop, Clip Paint Studio, Corel Painter, etc. Open your image. Go to Image>Adjustments>Saturation and completely desaturate your image. This setting is removing the hue entirely leaving only the values of the colors used. You will be able to get an idea of what you need to punch to get better contrast. By doing this repeatedly, you will start to train your brain to see value even when color is present. It is a lengthy process and you have to be consistent in checking your contrast. The more you practice looking at colors as values, the better your understanding of contrast will become.
What Not to Do . . .
When people try the desaturation trick on their photos, they get confused and think a grey-scale filter on the image is all they need to do. Adding a filter changes the integrity of the image. This is not going to give you an accurate representation of your values in your work. You must find the Saturation Setting in your editing software and remove all of the color. I have this setting in my editing software on my Samsung Galaxy phone. If you would like editing software on your computer, Krita is completely free and good for basic photo editing.
The tricky part for you, the reader, is to implement all of this into your painting. And to investigate the world of contrast further. Contrast isn’t just about the juxtaposition of light and dark. As mentioned previously, contrast is achieved in multiple ways. Getting comfortable with light and dark values is the first step to understanding contrast. From there, you should investigate using visual and physical textures, shiny and matte finishes, and color & temperature contrast.
Anytime you are painting, take photos throughout your process and desaturate them. This helps you to evaluate and adjust your work. You have to put into practice what you’ve just learned. Repetition is key to learning.
Practice making value scales. Try to paint a black and white value scale first, then try making color value scales. It is a tricky exercise to run through but very worthwhile. It hammers home how difficult this concept is for most people to become comfortable with and it will show you if you favor one end of the spectrum over another.
If you want to really improve your artwork, you must understand color theory. This is a lengthy process to learn and implement properly but it is very rewarding when you make improvements. It is a topic I am still learning and grappling with after 17 years of painting.
If you understand color theory, contrast and value, you will see an improvement in your painting. You cannot advance on technical application alone. You must understand the ins and outs of Color Theory.
Debra Ronca “Why do sweet and salty taste so good together?” 4 September 2014.
HowStuffWorks.com. <https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/sweet-and-salty-taste-good.htm> 1 July 2020
Kliever, J. (2020). Designing with contrast: 20 tips from a designer. Retrieved 1 July 2020, from https://www.canva.com/learn/contrasting-colors/
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Contrast. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 1, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contrast
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Value. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 1, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/value
Feghali, W. (2020). 9 COMMON DIGITAL ART BEGINNER MISTAKES AND HOW TO AVOID THEM. Retrieved 1 July 2020, from https://www.evenant.com/design/9-common-digital-art-beginner-mistakes/