Contrast is a crucial part of all artwork. Most artists are familiar with the term, and almost every single artist uses it in their work — weather they know about it or not. That being said, most of the time when we use the word contrast we are referring to the light-dark differences within a piece, yet there is much more to contrast than that, and hopefully this article will shed light on the wide gamut of contrasts that can be used when creating a piece of art. In fact, no piece makes use of only one type of contrast, although one type is usually dominant throughout the image.



Contrast of Hue


To create this type of contrast you should use the colors in their most brilliant form. Just as the strongest Light-Dark contrast is achieved by the use of white and black, the Contrast of Hue has the strongest expression when using the three primary colors: red, yellow and blue.

To achieve this contrast you need at least three unassociated hues of color, but as the hues drift away from the primary colors you can expect the effect of the contrast to weaken.

The usage of white in such color compositions weakens the brilliance of the colors and makes them darker, while the use of black increases their brilliance and their luminosity.

You can see the Contrast of Hue at work, in the pieces of modern art masters such as Matisse, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Picasso.



Light Dark Contrast


Light dark contrast is the difference between light values and dark values within an image. This is the strongest and most popular contrast. Its maximum strength can be achieved by the use of white and black.

In art the strong use of Light Dark contrast is called Chiaroscuro. You can see beautiful use of Light Dark contrast in the works of old masters such as Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt and Baglione.

You have to be mindful when depicting color in its brightest form, because every color corresponds to a different shade of grey, which is called the tonal value of the color. For example, on a 12 step value scale a pure yellow would be a value 3, orange a value 5, red a value 6, blue a value 8, and violet would be a value 10. It is a common mistake of the less experienced artist to ignore the tonal differences in colors when drawing chiaroscuro.



Cold Warm Contrast


The Cold Warm color contrast exists because we humans associate colors with certain experiences. For example, we associate “warm” colors with daylight or sunset, and the “cool” colors with a cold overcast day, storms, or the winter season. You can achieve the strongest cold – warm contrast by using Red-Orange against Blue-Green.

Yellow, Yellow-Orange, Orange, Red-Orange, Red, and Red-Violet are usually perceived as warm, while Yellow-Green, Green, Blue-Green, Blue, Blue-Violet, and Violet are usually perceived to be the cold colors of the spectrum.

However, we can define the character of the cold and warm colors differently also:

Cold – Warm ; Shady – Sunny ; Calm – Exciting ; Airy – Earthly ; Far – Near ; Light – Heavy ; Wet – Dry;

Cold Warm contrast can happen in almost any color relationship. For example cold – warm contrast can happen between Blue and Cyan, despite them both being labeled as cold colors. The only two exceptions are the Lime – Yellow and Magenta – Violet, which are right next to each other on the color wheel.



Complementary Contrast


Here is yet another famous contrast most artists know about and use regularly in their works. This was the first I found out about, and only type of color contrast I remember from my early years in art school. We had to memorize which color is in a complementary relationship with which color, and to be perfectly honest with you, although there were only 3 main relationships to remember, I messed them up most of the time. The only one I was always certain about was Red – Green for some unexplainable reason.

I probably wouldn’t know them today, if I didn’t met a talented young oil painter who gave me a perfect explanation. She said there are three primary colors, Red, Yellow and Blue. Keep one, mix the other two, you have complementary contrast.

Listed below are the complementary color relationships. You don’t have to memorize them once you get it how it works

Yellow – Violet = Yellow – (Blue + Red)

Blue – Orange = Blue – (Yellow + Red)

Red – Green = Red – (Yellow + Blue)

If two complementary color pigments are mixed together they produce a neutral grey. Oil painters mostly prefer to mix their grays from complementary colors instead of mixing white with black to achieve grey. Physically the light of two complementary colors mixed together will create white light.

Complementary colors are a strange pair. They are each other’s opposite yet they require each other — they excite each other to maximum brilliance when they are adjacent, yet when mixed together they eliminate each other like fire and water.

Every color has its complementary pair in the spectrum. You can find it by measuring which color is diametrically opposite on the color circle.



Simultaneous Contrast


This contrast is very closely related to the complementary contrast. Whenever our sees a certain color it expects to also see its complementary pair, and if the complementary color is not present it generates it.

In case if we are using grey next to a certain color, the eye will tinge it with the compliment of the color next to it.

If we are using two colors next to each other which are not in a complementary relationship, each color tries to force the other one to be its complementary. This results in the colors looking different than what they really are. Their stability crumbles and they vibrate giving a feeling of excitement and liveliness.

Simultaneous contrast teaches us that color is always relative to its surroundings.



Contrast of Saturation


Saturation or Chroma is the pureness and brilliance of color. High Chroma or Saturated colors are the purest, fullest and most brilliant, while low Chroma or Desaturated colors are dull and dim. The difference between the brilliance of a certain color is what we call the Contrast of Saturation.

Dull colors appear to be duller when next to pure intense colors, while intense colors appear to be more vivid when placed next to dull colors.

When using pigments you can break the vividness of a color by mixing it with black, white, grey, or its complementary.



Contrast of Extension


When balancing two colors, we usually need different amounts of each color. The contrast of extension is referring to the difference between the proportion of one area of color to another.

The strength of a color is defined by two factors. One is the brightness of the color and the other is the size of the spot.

Let’s see a few simple calculations based on the tonal values of colors, on a 12 step scale where 1 is the absolute black and 1 is pure white.

Yellow – 9

Orange – 8

Red – 6

Violet – 3

Blue – 4

Green – 6

The complementary color ratios would be

Yellow – Violet = 9 : 3 = 3 : 1 = 3/4 : 1/4

Orange – Blue = 8 : 4 = 2 : 1 = 2/3 : 1/3

Red – Green = 6 : 6 = 1 : 1 = 1/2 : 1/2

If we want to create color harmony based on the results we got above, we have to use only a third as much yellow against its complementary color violet, since it is 3 times as powerful.

The proportions of the primary and secondary colors are the following

Yellow – Orange = 3 : 4

Yellow – Red = 3 : 6

Yellow – Violet = 3 : 9

Yellow – Blue = 3 : 8

Yellow – Red – Blue = 3 : 6 : 8

Orange – Violet – Green = 4 : 9 : 6

You can calculate with the same method the relationship between any colors. Although be careful because these values are assigned to every color in its maximum brilliance. Once the color loses from its brightness the tonal values change together with its proportions on the canvas.

This shows us that the brightness of a color is directly related to the proportion it should be used in.



So these were the 7 most important types of pictorial contrasts, I hope this was helpful. If you didn’t know about them, it will probably give more dimension to your work once you start implementing them.