Defining contrast in art: An in-depth look

Definition of contrast art

Whenever an artist wants to highlight elements in their piece of art, contrast is usually the tool they typically use, as it has been one of the most powerful tools in the artist’s arsenal for decades.

Contrast or variety, variation, unevenness, difference, novelty, or individuality is the principle of art that refers to the arrangement of opposite elements and effects, for instance, light and dark colors, large and small shapes, and smooth and rough textures.

It is a tool that artists use to create variety, visual interest, and drama in an artwork. The maximum contrast in a piece of art is usually confined to the center of attention because too much contrast spread across the art piece can damage the unity and make it challenging to look at.

Contrast is the opposite of unity. It is mostly used when the artist wants to create a sense of chaos and confusion in his work. Many art critics and historians usually include contrast as the main principle of art.

The key to using contrast in art is to ensure the differences are apparent to the viewer. Typically, contrast is formed by creating differences in:

  1. Color: such as blue versus orange, red versus green, and yellow versus violet
  2. Movement: including slow versus fast
  3. Hue: muted colors versus saturated
  4. Size: small versus large shapes
  5. Shape: geometry versus organic shapes
  6. Temperature: cool versus warm
  7. Space: negative versus positive
  8. Value: dark versus light
  9. Texture: smooth versus rough

Skilled artists know when to create a contrast in painting and when to leave an area marginally uninviting.

Ten different types of contrast

Striking the right balance of contrast will determine whether your painting will interact with an audience or the audience will detract from it.

Below are some of the most common types of contrast used in art:

Color contrast

When it comes to color contrast, it is not just about the clash of colors, such as purple against yellow or red against green of hue contrast. Instead, this concept is further branched into two; saturation contrast and value contrast.

Saturation contrast

This technique refers to the contrast between dull and saturated contrast. For instance, an artist might use a saturated yellow against a dull yellow. Though not commonly used, this contrast can add a compelling element to a piece.

Most experienced artists do not consider color contrast in terms of hue, saturation, and value. Instead, they usually take an overall approach to color. However, approaching color in terms of the three elements opens up too many opportunities.

Value Contrast

Value contrast is the contrast between dark and light colors. This technique is based on the premise that every color has an underlying level of lightness. For instance, a saturated blue is darker than a saturated yellow, so if you place blue next to yellow, there is a contrast in value and hue.

Unlike hue and saturated contrast, the eye is very responsive to value contrast. This explains why artists widely consider this value to be the most significant aspect of color.

Hue contrast

This type of contrast refers to the contrast between different colors on the color wheel. Though they often play a part in creating a piece, hue contrast is independent of saturation and value contrasts.

Texture contrast

The texture is the way a 3D piece of art feels when touched. In 2D artworks, texture contrast is usually referred to as the visual feel of the work. In simpler terms, texture is defined as the tactile quality of a piece’s surface.

This element of art appeals to our sense of touch, which can conjure feelings of discomfort, pleasure, or familiarity. It is the best tool for artists when they want to stimulate an emotional response from their audience. The reasons for doing so differ from artist to artist, but the texture is an essential element in many works of art.

For instance, a real rock might feel smooth, rough and definitely hard when picked up or touched. So, a painter portraying a rock must create the illusions of all these qualities by using other art elements such as shape, color, and line.

The texture is commonly described in art by two objectives – smooth and rough. However, they can be defined further by terms like bumpy, coarse, fluffy, rugged, pebbly, or lumpy when denoting an uneven surface, while polished, flat, slick, velvety, and even when describing a smooth surface.

3D pieces rely hugely on the element of texture, and you will never find a sculpture or pottery that does not feature this element. Profoundly, the materials used in creating the piece give it texture. Be it bronze, marble, clay, wood, or metal, the material sets the foundation for how the artwork feels when it is touched.

As the artist develops the piece, they can augment the texture through a technique such as sand, buff, polish, or give the surface a patina, gauge it, bleach it, or rough it up.

The texture is commonly used in patterns like a sequence of crisscrossing diagonal lines that give the piece a basketweave appearance. Concentric, irregular contractions may replicate the texture of wood grain, while rectangles staggered in rows imitate the brick pattern’s texture.

3D artists may also use a contrast of texture. This may result in one element of the piece being smooth while the other rough. This contrast adds to the dramatic effect of the artwork and can help convey the artist’s message.

2D artists can also use texture, which may be either implied or real. For instance, photographers usually use the reality of texture when developing their pieces. Yet, they can downplay or enhance this texture by manipulating angle and light.

In other 2D mediums, such as drawing and painting, or printmaking, an artist usually suggests texture through the use of brushstroke lines similar to crosshatching. But when working with collages or impasto painting techniques, the texture can be unsubtle and dynamic.

One of the most renowned two-dimensional artists, Margaret Roseman, once summed up2: how 2D artists feel about the element of texture:

I aim for an abstract element of a realistic subject and use texture to add interest and suggest depth.

The artists can experiment with texture by manipulating their material and medium. For example, a portrait of a rose on a rough-textured surface will not have the same softness as the one drawn on a smooth-textured surface. Similarly, some artists may use less gesso, a white substance, to prime canvas since they want the texture to show through the shade they apply to it.

Shape contrast

Shape contrast refers to organic or rigid shapes, short or long shapes, or rectangles or circles. This technique is crucial when an artist wants to differentiate between the different subjects in the painting. Shape contrast is used mainly in landscape paintings.

Edge contrast

If an artist wants the audience to navigate through their pieces easily, they use edge contrast. There are three main types of edges in painting: hard, soft, and lost.

The eyes of the audience will typically follow the hard edges, but if you don’t contrast them, the painting will end up looking jarring and cartoonish. In art, the terms soft edge and hard edge refer to the two different ways objects can be painted.

A soft edge is when an object is painted so that it fades or disappears into the background. On the other hand, a hard edge is a term typically used to describe when the edge of an object is painted in a definite or well-defined way. In a hard edge, there is a strong sense of where the subject of the painting ends. The soft edge is the more popular of the two.

When a painting is developed with an understanding of edges, it will be painted mainly with a soft edge. The soft edge is the organic blur, which occurs as a result of light reflecting everywhere as well as how the three-dimensional object shape exists within a setting. This natural blur is usually wherever you direct your focus, but if you look for it, you can see it everywhere.

The hard edge is the area of a painting that pops, and it happens most in the natural visual realm than the soft edges. This type of edge contrast is typically created to depict the contrast from the other edges around it and is the most attention-grabbing element. It is crucial to be very moderate with how you use it.

A lost edge, on the other hand, is a soft edge that exists amidst two tonal values that are so similar that the edge fades completely. This occurs most commonly in the shaded region of an object in a shaded setting. However, it can also transpire in a high key painting, where the light is a little bit washed out and that only has a few dark or shadowy areas.

Another type of contrast edge is called the found edge, which is the opposite of the lost edge. A lost edge is the type of edge that picks up from the lost edge region and can be hard or soft. The distinction is that it exists because of the lost edges around it.

Detail contrast

With so many details to include in a painting, it can be very challenging to capture every single one of them. Detail contrast helps an artist ensure that they don’t render everything with the same level of detail.

Temperature contrast

Artists use temperature contrast to emphasize a focal point or a particular area in their painting.

In art, the temperature is the comparative position of a hue on a color wheel. For example, warm temperatures are associated with fire or the sun’s heat; the colors representing them include oranges, yellows, and reds. In contrast, the colors associated with cool objects are referred to as cool temperatures, and they include violets and greens.

The temperature of a hue is relative to other colors. For instance, one red may be cooler than another, just like some reds and yellow are warmer than others.

Value contrast

Values in art mean the relative darkness and lightness of a color. Artists use it to define the form and create spatial illusions. Value contrast separates objects in space.

Dark versus light contrast

Our ability to see an object is due to value contrast or differences in light and dark. When there is no or less contrast between light and dark, the objects and edges become challenging to distinguish.

Value is usually expressed in grayscale – a stepped chart that features black, white, and everything in between.

In art, value and art are linked. Value is a property of colors, and every color has value.

Movement contrast

Movement is an art element that functions in the fourth dimension-time. This element explains the process of relocating objects in space over time. Movement can be either literal or compositional. Movement is a principle of art that is used to create the impression of action.

In art, movement can be created with rhythm, lines, illusion or color. Movement created with lines can use static or dynamic lines. However, dynamic lines are the most commonly used to imply movement. Dynamic lines are usually diagonal to the edges of the picture plane and may either become sweeping curves or zig-zag.

Lines can also be used to imply movement in another way. When a line is drawn, it communicates a path. And the locations where the line starts and ends reveal the movement of the hand of the artist. A line can also be defined as a moving dot, and artists may use this concept of line to trace the path an object is taking through a painting.

Final words

Contrast is one of the most important elements of art. It is required to compare fundamental opposites, including dark and light, soft and hard, and fast and slow.

Contrast is also closely tied to human perception and survival instincts. It examines the latter, thus making contrast a powerful and essential tool for artists. In simpler terms, contrast is the root of almost everything an artist will accomplish.


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