Much of what I’ve done with art recently has involved the principle of contrast. This is a key principle in design, and the better I understand it, the more I’ll be able to successfully use contrast as an element in my drawing and painting. This is especially important to me now as I learn more about tonalism, an art movement which — at first glance — may seem to have little contrast between the various colors and objects in the composition.

Let’s begin with a simple definition. What is contrast? It can be as simple as black and white, and much of my recent work has focused on the stark contrast between the two. I’ve spent considerable time with Zen doodles — nothing but black ink on a white background — with reverse drawing — using white charcoal on black paper — and learning more about notan studies and the principles of balancing light and dark within a single composition.

Black and white is a simple 2-value contrast. It’s not, however, the only way in which contrast can be expressed as an element of design.

  • In addition to black and white, any light and dark colors can be used for contrast
  • Contrast can be created through the use of texture in oil painting
  • Shapes and sizes can contrast against one another
  • Emotional contrast can be created in art through subject matter
  • Variations in line quality can create contrast
  • Directional lines and movement can show contrast

An excellent example of the use of contrast comes from Italian artist Caravaggio.

Here, in the dramatic Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600-1601), he uses two primary methods to create contrast.

There is, first, a noticeable difference between light and dark. There is also a second contrast here, created by the strong diagonal lines of the figures.

Caravaggio was known for his use of chiaroscuro in his paintings, and many art historians point to the lights and shadows of the individual figures in this painting as yet another form of contrast.

Others point out, as well, the use of the dark background with the lighter figures of the painting, as an example of contrast.

As we can see from Caravaggio, contrast creates dramatic paintings.

Now, let’s turn — for a moment — to tonalism. We don’t typically find stark contrasts between light and dark. We find, instead, more muted colors with a smaller range of values. In tonalism, we do find contrasts. They’re simply approached in different ways.

Here is an example of a tonalist painting by George Inness:

In this “Sunrise” painting, the primary objective for Inness — as was true for many tonalists — was to create the sense of light. He contrasts the light here through his use of colors, setting the golden yellows of the sunlight against deep greens of the grassy field in the foreground.

Of course, tonalists, too, used black and white. Remember the notan study I showed recently? Here is, once again, Whistler’s painting of his mother, known more correctly as “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1”

Definitely contrasts here, despite Whistler’s reputation as a tonalist, so let’s not be too concerned with categorizing artists and styles. All good artists and all good paintings make use of the principle of contrast.

Why is contrast so important?

The most important aspect of contrast I’ve learned is that it’s used to bring the viewer into the painting. We create a focal point in a painting or drawing by the use of contrast. Again, this may be done with the use of light and dark, although artists use other methods as well to make contrasts as strong as possible.

If you look back at the paintings I’ve shared today, notice where your eyes go first. Most likely your vision is draw directly to the lightest point in the painting, which is also the point of maximum contrast. From there, an artist uses other principles of design and composition to lead your eyes through the rest of the painting.

Contrast in art adds interest and variety. When we combine opposites, we can create striking contrast. This is why we’re taught to understand and use complementary colors — blue and orange, red and green, yellow and violet. Contrast can come from pairing muted colors against highly-saturated hues, or through use of warm and cool colors.

Other design elements — such as rhythm and repetition — can also play a role in creating contrast in our art. Perhaps the best way to learn and understand how contrast is used in art is to explore the concept in each painting we see and in each drawing or painting we make. As we see the successful use of contrast — and how it is achieved — in famous works of art, we can discover ways to bring it to our own canvases, to create it in our own drawings.

I’m starting with black and white studies. I plan to move on to studies with complementary colors. I’ve done them before, they’re lots of fun, and I’m ready to learn more from them. There are many good art exercises we can devise for working with contrast, so have fun, play with shapes, colors, lines, and textures.

Contrast is a key principle of design. The more we use it, the better our art will be.



    1. It’s really an important principle to remember — at least, it is for me. I get so caught up with colors that I often overlook values 😦 Learning more about contrast and how we create it will definitely help me create stronger focal points in my landscape art.

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