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
* ¾ lighter value colors with ¼ darker value colors

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

Make a Revolving Pencil Caddy with Lift-out Cups

I love using colored pencils, but after rummaging through boxes looking for a certain color, having cardboard holders flop over, and grabbing at pencils steamrolling off my table, I knew there had to be a better way.

Quick and Easy

So in less time than it took me to locate sky blue, I made a revolving caddy to organize my colored pencils. Read on to learn how I made it and to discover why this one might be just the right thing for you as well.

In addition to the materials below, you’ll need a scissors, a ruler, and a pencil or Sharpie-like pen.


  • A minimum 10 to 12 in. diameter utility turntable, such as Rubbermaid’s, from Target, Amazon, or Walmart for about $15.00.
  • 16 or 17 same-size plastic drinking cups, approx. 5-1/2 inches tall. Make sure they stack. I bought five to a package at the Dollar Store.* 
  • E6000 or Goop type glue. (Elmer’s type white glue doesn’t adhere well to plastic.)
  • The cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels, or two tubes from a couple of rolls of toilet paper.

Total Cost: Under $20. depending on brands


1. Arrange approximately seven plastic drinking cups in a circle around the edges of the turntable and place one cup in the center. Sizes may vary; make sure they all fit right up to the lip of the turntable. Color of the cups is unimportant. 

2. Glue the bottoms of the cups onto the turntable using a generous amount of glue. Let dry thoroughly; it may take several hours.  NOTE: If your cups have a hollowed out bottom. Make sure you put enough glue around the edges that touch the surface of the turntable so the cups adhere well.

3. While the cups are drying, measure 1-inch marks on the paper tube(s).

4. Cut the tube into 1-inch segments, flattening out the tube as you go to cut it more easily. Reshape the segments into “rings” again.

5. When the glue is dry, drop the cardboard rings into the cups that are glued onto the turntable. The rings should sit edge-on at the bottom.

6. Insert a second cup into each glued-on cup. I stacked three in the center for easier access.

7. Fill the cups with colored pencils, and you’re done!

Handy Access

The key to this colored pencil caddy is its ease of use. When you're looking for a colored pencil, especially a shorter one, simply lift out the cup to find it. Replace when finished. The cardboard rings prevent the top cup from sticking to the bottom one. 

* The plastic cups I bought have DEHP in them that make them unsafe to drink from. DEHP can leach from the plastic when exposed to liquids. I am using the cups with no intention to drink from them. If you have any kind of aversion to this, use a different set of cups that you’re more comfortable with.


Organizing Colored Pencils

Here's a system that keeps your colors visible and close at hand.

Hard and Waxy Pencils

I combine both hard (such as Verithin) and soft lead pencils (such as Prismacolor) in my caddy sections. I group both together because it's the color that matters most to me, and I use both pencil types on every piece I do. The hard lead works for small details and the waxy lead is good for filling large areas and for layering over the hard lead areas.

I do not keep watercolor and pastel pencils in this caddy because I use them separately with other materials.

Group Colors into Families

It's easier to find colors when you keep color families in rainbow order, such as reds/oranges, pinks, purples, blues, greens, yellows, and browns around the edge, and cool neutrals in the center.

  1. Reds/Oranges – include colors such as vermillion, coral, orange, dark magenta, crimson, burgundy, and other red-based tones.
  2. Pinks – Although pink is light red, I separate pinks from the red family because there are so many shades. Include colors such as light magenta, pale pink, bright pink, mauve, and peachy colors.
  3. Purples – include colors such as dark purple, lavender, orchid, blue-purple, and violet tones.
  4. Blues – include colors such as pale blue, turquoise blue, lavender-blue, bright blue, cobalt, indigo, ultramarine, and other blue tones.
  5. Greens – include colors such as olive, pale green, bright green, dark green, grass green, aqua, turquoise-green, and yellow-green.
  6. Yellows – include colors such as ochre, pale yellow, bright yellow, golden yellow, yellow-orange, and cream colors.
  7. Browns – Browns are warm neutrals. Include colors such as sienna, umber, beige, tan, taupe, terra cotta, khaki, and warm earth tones.
  8. Cool Neutrals – Put this group in the center section. Include colors such as black, white, all shades of gray, and blender pencils.

Half & Half Colors 

 There are colors that could fit in either of two groups, such as yellow-green. Is it more yellow? Or more green? Life is short; pick one and move on.

Metallic Colors

If you work with metallic colors, consider putting gold and bronze in the brown group because they're warm neutrals. Group silver and pearl white with cool neutrals. 


Is this the pencil caddy you’ve been waiting for? Or, do you have a better way of organizing your pencils? Let me know your thoughts. Start a discussion in the comments. 

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. 


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.


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


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 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!