Principles of Good Design: Contrast

contrast design elementAnother important principle of good design is contrast. This is principle that is often applied when an artist wants to add visual interest, excitement and drama to an art piece.

Defining Contrast

Contrast in art refers to the positioning of opposing components in a work of art. It occurs when two or more related elements are strikingly different. The greater the difference the greater the contrast.


oils canvas art“Bunratty Ireland”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
12″ x 9″
Oils on canvas panel board

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Opposing Elements in Art

The key to working with contrast is to make sure the differences are obvious. The most common ways of creating contrast are by creating differences in:

  • Color — complimentary colors on the color wheel, i.e. red vs. green, blue vs. orange, yellow vs. violet
  • Hue — saturated vs. muted colors
  • Movement — fast vs. slow
  • Shape — organic vs. geometric shapes
  • Size — large vs. small shapes
  • Space — positive vs. negative
  • Temperature — warm vs. cool
  • Texture — rough vs. smooth
  • Value — light vs. dark

The Significance of Contrast

Contrast is significant because it adds variety to the total design and creates unity. It draws the viewer’s eye into the painting and helps to guide the viewer around the art piece.

Contrast also adds visual interest. Most designs require a certain amount of contrast, if there is too much similarity of the components in any design, it will become monotonous. Too little contrast results in a design that is bland and uninteresting to view. However, don’t over do it as too much contract can cause the design to be confusing. It takes just the right amount of contrast to engage the viewer’s participation in comparing various components of the work. For instance, the viewer will compare light and dark areas of a painting, wide lines and thin lines, light-weight forms and heavy forms, filled spaces and unfilled spaces, etc.

Some Examples of the Effective Use of Contrast

contrast in artThe contrast in the illustration coffee pot and cups is quite obvious. Notice the contrast of the light background (wall) with dark foreground (table cloth) and the contrast of the dark shadows on the tea pot and cup against the wall and with the lights of the same objects against a dark window.

There is also a contrast of thin and thick lines in the napkin, straight and curved lines, and don’t miss the contrast created by the use of geometric shapes (coffee pot and cups) with organic shapes (steam and clouds). The dark steam is also contrasted with the light clouds off in the distance.

design elementIn the illustration of the lady and parrot is a good example of contrast between lights and darks. A contrast of color exists between the red parrot and white dress. Also notice the contrast in the roundness of shapes in the foreground against the flatness of the dark background. Contrast of texture is also implied by the softness of the silk dress and soft feathers of the bird against the hard, flat background.

Contrast in this painting is much more subtle. There is contrast in texture. Notice the hard texture of the fence in the background as contrasted with the softness of the butterflies and kittens. Also a contrast exists between the soil and the foliage. The kittens themselves have a contrast depicted in their colors verses the color of the fence in the background and even with each other. And the red flowers verses green grass promotes a contrast of complimentary colors.

Questions

  1. Why is it important to include contrast in a composition?
  2. How can contrast be used to create unity in a design?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity