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Contrast: A Vital Principle of Design for Painters

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Art Lessons | 0 comments


Contrast is an important principle of design that refers to the difference between two elements in a painting. The right amount of contrast can make a painting pop and grab the viewer’s attention. It can also add a sense of depth and dimension to a painting. As a painter, understanding the power of contrast can take your artwork to the next level.

There are many ways to create contrast in a painting, including color contrast, value contrast, and texture contrast. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Color Contrast

This refers to the difference between two colors in a painting. Bold color contrasts, such as black and white or red and green, can create a striking and attention-grabbing effect. Softer color contrasts, such as blue and yellow, can create a more harmonious and calming effect.

Value Contrast

This refers to the difference between light and dark values in a painting. High value contrast creates a dramatic effect and draws the viewer’s eye to specific areas of the painting, while low value contrast creates a more subtle and peaceful effect. As a painter, you can use value contrast to create the illusion of light, shadow, and depth in your paintings.

Value contrast is the most eye catching contrast. We see the difference between black and white much more than that of red and green.

Texture Contrast

This refers to the difference between rough and smooth textures in a painting. By incorporating contrasting textures, you can add visual interest and depth to your paintings. For example, you can create a rough texture in the foreground of a painting and a smooth texture in the background to create a sense of distance and depth.

I feel like texture contrast can be lost digitally, but so important when we see a work in person. It is also has a physicality that can be lost at a certain distance, or in reverse, it can be a reward for approaching the work.

Click here to see “The Rose” by Jay DeFeo. (Link takes you to the Whitney Museum)

The link above takes you to see “The Rose” which I saw in the Bay Area before it was moved to New York. It is a stunning example of textural greatness. Online is not the same experience. To get an idea of it’s depth and magnitude, look at the bottom of the image. 

When creating contrast in your paintings, it’s important to remember to use it to further your concept for the painting. If we have many high contrast points, it can feel busy without a purpose. Our brains will acknowledge it is chaotic and want to disengage (think: hamster dance of the early internet years). However, contrast can lead our eyes around a painting, guiding gently or insistently.