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Contrast       Part 1        Tone Contrast                                                 Back to articles list       

This two part article has been written for beginner artists to introduce them to tone and colour contrast and their role in composition. I hope, by demonstration and suggestion, to impart some practical knowledge to the aspiring artists.

It is well known fact that when we look first time on any object, like painting or drawing, our eyes are moving from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. That top right corner is the place of “maximum impact”. Here our eyes are briefly stopped and will move to the right bottom corner according to the contrast lines of the painting. This movement of eyes around the painting, which is created by the artist, is needed to generate the composition. We need composition in a painting to pull all parts of the painting together and create rhythm and mood specific for this painting and according to the concept of the author. Composition includes tone and colour contrast. It could include many other components, but today we will talk about contrast and its place in painting
and drawing.

One of the best examples of great tone contrast we can find in the paintings of Rubens – the grand master of composition, light, texture and colour. Take a good look at “Allegory on the Blessing of Peace” 1629-30 Pic. N1. You will see immediately the Allegory of Peace in the middle of the painting, because it contains the most light and biggest spot, surrounded by a very dark background.


Rubens "Allegory"

Rubens “Allegory on the Blessing of Peace” 1629-30 Pic. N1

All other adjoining figures appear to be in chaos. However, as your eye starts to follow the lines between light and dark, you can see the harmony, rhythm and movement, which leads your eye from one part of the painting to another, showing more and more details of the painting. It gives you a chance to discover the beauty of the painting, amaze you and return your sight again to the main subject - beautiful lady reprisenting the Peace.

Rubens used light dramatically to focus on objects, to show colour and texture and to enhance objects.   

Rubens "Allegory" black and white 1

Allegory on the Blessing of Peace” 1629-30 Pic. N2

From the figure closest to the left side of the painting, which energetically moves toward the Allegory of Peace, our eye goes to Peace through the arm of the warrior behind her to a group of seated ladies and angels and then back to the Peace. From Peace to Pan, from Pan to a Panther and again
back to Peace.

Rubens "Allegory"

Rubens “Allegory on the Blessing of Peace” 1629-30 Pic. N3

Rubens “Allegory on the Blessing of Peace” Pic. N2 shows the main lines, which support the eye movement. Rubens “Allegory on the Blessing of Peace” Pic. N3 shows the additional tone contrast movement, which totally supports the main one. Our eyes constantly return to the figure of Peace as it has the strongest contrast between light (body) and dark (background figure). Also because the lines of sharp contrast surrounding the figure it is lead our eyes to the centre of the painting again and again. It is keeping our attention, never leaving us a slightest chance of getting bored and turn of our eyes out of the painting.

Tone contrast means sharp difference between light and dark colours. You can see tone contrasts in life and on canvas all the time. Without tone contrast created by light it would be impossible
to see or draw.

Tone contrast creates some illusions, which we should know about. See the Pic. N 4. The light grey bar on the middle of the picture has equal tone on top and bottom. However, it is looks much lighter on the black background than on white one. We never see colour or tone isolated from other colours and tones. We always take it together with all surrounding. It is that surrounding changes our perception of what we see. The bigger contrast between dark and light of two spots of colour, then more darker will looks dark one and more lighter will looks the light one.

Pic. N4

Abilities of tone contrast are know for many centuries and gives artists chance to achieve the maximum expression of an artistic image.

Expression, the impact power of composition depends mostly on ability of an artist to use tone contrast of light on dark and dark on light. Consequently, more contrast and contradiction is more bright will be the impression of the painting.

Portraits for many centuries were created in most contrast - dramatic manner of silhouette of enlightened face on a dark background. See Rubens “Self-portrait” Pic.N5.

Rubes "Self-portrait"

Rubens "Self-portrait" Pic. N5

Also artists are use the opposite contrast of a dark figure on a light background. In addition, some artists paint a combination of both, which can involve an enlightened part of the head on a dark background and a shaded parts of the head on a light background. See P.Picasso “Harlequin” 1923 Pic.N6.

Picasso "Harlequin"

P. Picasso “Harlequin” 1923 Pic. N6

What gives us the use of tone contrast? Well, if we take for example Rembrandt, who very often applied the principal of portion lightening, we see huge effects of tone contrast. Let us look at one of his most famous paintings, ”Holly Family ” 1645 Pic. N7. The light flowing from the left top corner, highlighting the most important parts – the angels, the woman’s head, the Bible and the cradle with baby. The clothing of the woman is highlighted much less than her head, shoulders and hands. It was conscious decision by the artist, as he wanted to emphasize using the light the most important things in the painting. He also downplays a man in the background by making very suttle tone contrast
of his figure.

Through the use of light, Rembrandt leads our eyes from the flying angels in the top left corner to the woman, a movement that is supported by the figure of the man in the background. From the woman, our eyes are then taken to the Bible and finally to the baby in the cradle.

Rembrandt "Holly Family"

Rembrandt "Holly Family" 1645 Pic. N7

One more important trick involving contrast: have looked at Pic.8. First see it up closely and then move back two meters. Notice how the top square still keeps its sharp contrast, but the bottom one loses it. The combination of small contrast spots loses its sharpness with the increase of space between the object and the viewer and if distance is big enough, it becomes one grey spot. Pointillists and impressionists had used that effect in 19 century.

Tone Contrast Pic. N2

Pic. N8

In practical work it is very important to keep these laws in mind. For example, if you paint a big landscape and draw many very small red flowers on green background at the front stage, they could be lost in the eyes of the viewer and become as a mess of brown colour if the viewer stays two meters away from the work.

Also keep in mind the character of dividing colour spots borders. The sharp border increases the power of impact and a washed out one decreases it. The sharp one makes the objects looks closer to the viewer and washed out ones increase the distance between the viewer and the subject
of the painting.

Keep in mind that border contrast appears different when we look at the middle of the same coloured spot at the point of contrast.

As a result, the light colour spot or tone will look lighter at the border with a dark spot, when compared with the same light colour spot in the middle of that particular area. You can say the same about a dark spot of colour, which will look darker on the border with the light spot of colour, compare with the middle of same dark spot. Consequently, one of main aims of a painting is to find a harmonious agreement of contrast tones and colours.

See the Part 2 for the Colours Contrast.

by Margarita Iakovleva 23.02.08

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