Principles of Good Design: Contrast

Principles of Good Design: ContrastAnother essential element of the principles of good design is contrast. This principle is often applied when an artist wants to add visual interest, excitement, and drama to an art piece.

Defining Contrast in Art

Contrast is 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.

Opposing Elements in Art

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

    • Color — complementary 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, please don’t overdo it, as too much contrast can cause the design to be confusing. It takes just the right amount of contrast to engage the viewer’s participation in comparing various artwork components. For instance, the viewer will compare light and dark areas of a painting, wide and thin lines, lightweight and heavy forms, filled and unfilled spaces, etc.

Some Examples of the Effective Use of Contrast

contrast in artThe contrast in the illustration of a coffee pot and cups is quite apparent. Notice the contrast of the light background (wall) with the dark foreground (tablecloth) and the contrast of the dark shadows on the teapot 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 geometric shapes (coffee pot and cups) with organic forms (steam and clouds). The dark steam is also contrasted with the light clouds off in the distance.

design elementThe illustration of the lady and parrot is an excellent example of the contrast between lights and darks. A contrast of color exists between the red parrot and the 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 the bird’s soft feathers against the hard, flat background.

Contrast in this painting is much more subtle. There is a contrast in texture. Notice the rigid texture of the fence in the background compared 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 versus the color of the fence in the background and even with each other. And the red flowers versus green grass promote a contrast of complementary colors.


  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.

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Principles of Good Design: Balance

Principles of Good Design: ContrastYou are here.

Principles of Good Design: Emphasis

Principles of Good Design: Movement

Principles of Good Design: Proportion

Principles of Good Design: Space

Principles of Good Design: Visual Economy

Principles of Good Design: Unity

Want More Art Lessons?

After you’ve finished the lessons on the Principles of Good Design, why not move on to the Basic Art Elements? To begin, go to The Basic Elements of Art(An Introduction)

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