The Power of Contrast

 EXAMPLES OF HIGH CONTRAST: Left, dark subject against light background. Right, light subject against dark background. © Marjorie Sarnat. Original line art illustration is from   Creative Cats .

EXAMPLES OF HIGH CONTRAST: Left, dark subject against light background. Right, light subject against dark background. © Marjorie Sarnat. Original line art illustration is from Creative Cats.

High Contrast Creates Drama and Commands Attention

Contrast in a composition refers to its darks and lights, regardless of its colors. For example, the color blue can be so dark it appears almost black or so light it appears almost white. In art, the degree of darkness or lightness of a color is called its value. A color can be any degree of dark to light. There are many values between the darkest dark and the lightest light.

Black and white create the highest contrast of values because they show extreme dark against extreme light (or extreme light against extreme dark.). Any dark color against any light color has high contrast, too.

Use contrast to create drama and command attention in a work of art. The eye is immediately drawn to areas of high contrast, so you can use that to your advantage by deciding what your center of interest is to be. In addition, within the cat figures, I employed high contrast in the eyes by placing the only pure white in the highlights against the black pupils.

Try using one of these formulas, although it doesn’t have to be exact: 
 * ¾ of darker value colors with ¼ lighter value colors
or
* ¾ lighter value colors with ¼ darker value colors

Add other values for variety and accents. Artworks that employ darks and lights have drama.

An Artist's View

 Edward Hopper's "Morning Sun" (1952) depicts the solitude of urban life. The window casts a stark light on the figure. We wonder what she is thinking as she gazes out over the rooftops. Image courtesy of Columbus Museum of Art.inw

Edward Hopper's "Morning Sun" (1952) depicts the solitude of urban life. The window casts a stark light on the figure. We wonder what she is thinking as she gazes out over the rooftops. Image courtesy of Columbus Museum of Art.inw

Windows can be exciting subject matter because they symbolize possibilities, insight, and a glimpse of hidden secrets. Here are a few painting concepts to consider.

Outside, Peeking In

“We artists allow others to see through our windows.”
– Robert Genn

Paint your subject from the outside looking in, such as a view into a library, a high rise with the pattern of lit windows at night, or a pie or kitten on a windowsill.

Imagine bakery goods, antiques, fashions, sports gear, or imaginary objects displayed in store windows. Portray kids peering into a toy store window, silhouettes on a window shade, someone leaning out and calling, or a lonely soul gazing out.

Inside, Looking Out

There is nothing more compelling than an interior window revealing what's outside. Sometimes there’s a landscape that makes us want to escape. A view of harsh weather can make us glad to be warm and cozy inside. I once felt startling irony in an apartment: my bedroom window was surrounded by floral wallpaper but provided the view of a brick wall.

Imagine scenes through raindrops, blowing curtains, windowpane grids, or the magical imagery of icy windowpanes.

Telling a Story

Windows tell dramatic tales. Picture boarded or broken windows, hanging crystals casting rainbows, or ivy hiding a mysterious opening. Windows can reflect things on the other side of the street, sometimes showcasing contrasts like the window of a bleak building that reflects dreamy clouds or a lively café.

Light the Way

Windows provide light. Pouring in, it warms a room or reveals stark realities. Light glowing outward brightens an evening landscape. You can use window light in many ways to create striking focal points, as in this painting by Vermeer.

Beautiful Illusions

Paintings of windows create the illusion of openings when hung on a wall. This gives your artistic vision extra appeal. 

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As artists we turn our canvases into windows that others look into and see what is meaningful to them.


This article was excerpted from my latest book, “210 Imaginative Ideas for Painting.”

Getting White to Work

What do snow, lilies, clouds, teeth, whipped cream, and polar bears have in common? If you said the color white, you’re wrong. Each is a pale color with only highlights that are truly white.

 This work shows the temperature and value range of the color white. Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (911-2), 2009, 78 3/4 in. x 118 1/8 in., Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. (Click on painting for link.)

This work shows the temperature and value range of the color white. Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (911-2), 2009, 78 3/4 in. x 118 1/8 in., Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. (Click on painting for link.)

 

When painting a white object observe that it often has warm color tints in the light with cool tones in shadow. White things pick up color reflections from their surroundings, too. They're more colorful than first meets the eye.

Which White is Right?

White is essential for every palette of colors. The more opaque the white, the greater its tinting power but the more it will diminish the vibrancy of a color. White also tends to cool a color.

Here are popular whites for oils, acrylics, and watercolors and an outline of their differences.

  • Titanium White: opaque, warm, dries slowly, slightly flexible
  • Zinc White: transparent, cool or neutral, dries slowly, brittle. It's often preferred for mixing because it doesn't overpower a hue. Good for glazing and scumbling techniques
  • Titanium-Zinc White or Mixing White: neutral, all-purpose, combines the best of two pigments. Try mixing your own formula
  • Flake White: warm, dries slowly, flexible, contains toxic lead. Avoid it.
  • Flake White Hue: flake white without the toxic lead
  • Transparent White: weakened titanium formula, good for mixing
  • Chinese White: term used for zinc white watercolor formulas
  • Gamblin Radiant White (oil only): neutral, brilliant light reflective quality
  • Bob Ross Soft White (oil only): wonderful creamy texture 

TIP: Add a bit of cadmium orange to white for a sunlit feeling. Use it against cool shadow tones to heighten drama, especially in a landscape.

EXERCISE: Making It All White  Try creating a painting in high key (light values.) You'll become aware of subtle value and temperature relationships. Add brighter colors and darker accents sparingly. Create texture for excitement. A "white" palette produces a unified piece with harmony and appeal.

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When painting with white, you're working with color—however light. And if you make textural brushstrokes, you're creating shadows too, which provide more color and values. White is anything but sterile; it's colorful and dynamic.

Multi-monotones – Create Subtle Color Harmony with a Note of Excitement

the-old-blind-guitarist-1903.jpg

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso painted "The Old Guitarist" in 1903 during his Blue Period. The monotone painting is mainly in shades of blue. Notice how he adds a slight greenish cast to the flesh, and uses a warm neutral accent for the guitar. Image courtesy of wikipaintings.org.A monotone (or monochromatic) painting is an artwork painted in a single color using a range of darks, lights, and half tones to show form. The values you use are more effective than color for showing the forms of things because values tell how surfaces catch light.

Old masters painted gray under-paintings, called grisaille, to establish form before adding color to their canvases. Today artists often use earth tones as a warmer alternative. 

For finished paintings a monotone color scheme provides built-in color harmony. However, monotones can lack vitality. Here's an approach I call multi-monotone because it uses color variations of a single dominant hue. For example, if your hue is green it would include yellow-greens and blue-greens. Blue would include greener blues and purple-blues. 

These color schemes are not fully analogous (colors next to each other on the color wheel) but move slightly in that direction. Subtle nuances of color become significant in a single-hued artwork. 

There are three ways to create a range of darks and lights with a single hue.

  • Use black or umber for darkening a color and white to lighten it. With this approach your colors may be boring. 
  • Use a chosen color as your darkest dark and add white for lighter values. Note that inherently lighter hues such as yellow will lack contrast. The result with any color may lack interest, as well.
  • For a richer approach use your color's complement to mix darks and neutrals and use white to make lighter values. This is a great approach for developing a multi-monotone piece.

Try this exploration: Divide a canvas in fours and paint the same subject in each section in a different dominant hue, using the complementary color for dark and white for lights. But alter your dominant hue with its adjacent colors. You'll see dramatic differences in the moods the colors impart in each section.

Beautiful color harmony is a balance between unified color and a note of excitement. 

I wish a healthy and happy new year to all!

Dot-ism

 French post-impressionist Georges Seurat originated Pointillism, a masterful version of dot-ism. His  "La Parade de Cirque"  was painted 1887–88. Image courtesy Wikimedia

French post-impressionist Georges Seurat originated Pointillism, a masterful version of dot-ism. His "La Parade de Cirque" was painted 1887–88. Image courtesy Wikimedia

Dots create appealing textures in paintings. Whether you work representationally or not, think of dots as bits of color your eye will mix.

Dot Your Eyes

Study shading by painting a simple subject like a pear or a face by using light and dark dots to show form.

Work onto a middle-toned surface and think of your dots as short brushstrokes. Use light and dark values to depict main lights and shadows. Mingle dots to create more values. Spacing dots closer and further apart creates additional values. Use any colors if their values are right. Your subject will look surprisingly realistic from a distance because dots mix optically.

Angelo Franco creates a contemporary version of the style in “Floral Abstraction Tangier.”

Original Aboriginals

Australian Aboriginal Dot Paintings have slightly raised dots painted over flat earth-colored shapes. The artists depict animals and nature, using color symbolically: yellow = sun, brown = earth, red = sand, white = clouds and sky.

Dotting the background on aboriginal art would hide symbols that the uninitiated were not allowed to see. Today it is used for decorative purposes only. Image Courtesy of Aboriginal Life.

Heavy paper or any board works well. Avoid springy canvas. Using acrylic paint, cover your substrate in large areas of flat color. Apply uniform sized dots over background areas, letting them flow across areas to unify the composition. Add smaller dots for details, larger dots for emphasis. Concentric dotted circles and dotted outlines around shapes are typical of Aboriginal Dot Paintings. The paint application itself will cause the dots to be slightly raised.

Good dot-maker tools are backs of brushes and pointed-tip squeeze bottles of paint. Experiment to find the tools and paint viscosity that works best. Gloss dots over matte backgrounds add drama. Adapt this indigineous style through your own subject matter and colors.

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If you haven’t thought of dot-painting until now, it can be a fresh new way to approach your art.

This article is adapted from Marjorie Sarnat's new book, 210 Imaginative Ideas for Painting and appeared in the May 2013 issue of California Art League – Creative Edge Newsletter.