Making art is good for us; it contrasts joyful creation with the day to day drudgery of our lives. Everyone should make something, good or bad doesn’t matter, just make it—make it for yourself, but take every chance you get to learn to make something better. That’s what the Principles of Art are all about, learning how to grow as a creator.
The Principles of Art are balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity/variety. We are on part two of this series, and this month I want to talk about contrast.
Normally we think about contrast in the terms of black and white photography: the bright highlights are contrasted with the deep shadows of the background, and high-contrast images can feel exciting and dramatic. Contrast is easy to see in black and white because we are free of the distraction of colour, which adds complexity to the composition. If the contrast does not dip too far into the dark or rise too far into the light, an image can feel very blah—like a rainy coastal day—this is called tonal range. In terms of the Principles of Art, contrast means more than just lights and darks: you can use any kind of contrast to build excitement and drama in your work. Anything that is juxtaposed beside something radically different is considered contrast.
As I explained in last month’s column about balance, our brains like to categorize visual things in the terms of the physics of our natural world. As creators we can use that to our advantage to create illusions and stir emotions. If you imagine a flower painted in the foreground being bright, crisp-edged and precise set beside another plant that is smaller, darker and blurry, that’s a great use of contrast to help the viewer discern where they are in the field of view. It’s not just the colour that is contrasted, but also the crisp edges, saturation, size, as well as more subtle things like brush stroke length that create that contrast.
Using contrast can help things feel like more of themselves. A series of sharp zigzag lines might appear repetitive or pattern-like, but if we crossed them with a swooping, fluid stroke, it could emphasize the jaggedness of the angular ones. A series of smaller trees on one side of a composition could be contrasted with a larger one on the opposite side. Textured oil paint strokes can be contrasted with smooth glazed layers. Big solid shapes with thin wispy ones. If you want your piece to really speak you can think about what the opposite of your muse is and add that to create the kind of drama that helps seed an emotional response in the viewer.
Contrast can also be a great tool for building visual layers. When I’m working on a landscape painting, the last thing I do is add very dark paint in strategic spots to give bright areas extra pop; like the shadows in leaf-cover of trees or behind rocks. Those dark spots can push the bright areas beside them out towards the viewer. Similarly, you can use lighter or de-saturated paint to push layers back. If you’re out for a hike, have a look at the mountains around you, you’ll see subsequent layers of terrain getting hazier as they recede because the atmosphere filters out some of the saturation. You can duplicate that trick of contrast in your work to push background layers of scenery away from the viewer. By lightening the contrast in subtle steps relative to the layer in front of it, you can build an illusion of