"I try to apply colors like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music." Joan Miro

The Harmony of Contrasts
© 1999 Nita Leland

Use these six principles of contrast to paint color with confidence and style.

By using contrasts effectively, you can create rich, harmonious color. Master these six principles of contrast and you'll be on your way to more expressive painting.

1. Let's start by looking at the contrast of pure hue. When you put pure, bright colors next to each other, they won't clash no matter how many you use or how you combine them. That's why children's and primitive artists' works are usually so vibrant and exciting. Bright colors express high energy and emotion.

Principle in Action: The Fauvists and modern color-field painters placed pure hues against each other. Stained glass, mosaics and Pennsylvania Dutch stencil designs are other good examples of this principle at work.

2. Value contrast sets the tone for color expression. Full-contrast artwork has a complete range of values, from white through midtones to dark, and suggests normal illumination. Middle values usually provide the framework for value painting, with light and dark value contrast giving the work its visual impact. High-key colors, the tints and middle tones at the light end of the value scale, are usually pure colors and convey a feeling of soft, harmonious ambient light. Artwork using high-key color is cheerful and optimistic. Low-key colors in middle to dark values indicate dim illumination, and create a serious, pensive mood.

Principle in Action: Renaissance and Mannerist painters used contrasts in value to give their work a strong visual impact.

3. Intensity contrast comes from placing pure, bright color within areas of grayer, low-intensity color. Bright colors or pure tints surrounded by a field of neutrals sing, especially when the hues are complementary. For example, red seems much brighter when the gray next to it is tinged with green.

Principle in Action: J.M.W. Turner was a master at using pure, delicate tints next to low-intensity colors.

HINT: As a rule of thumb, your picture is harmonious when colors are close in intensity or value, but not both at the same time; some contrast is necessary in either intensity or value.

4. Complementary contrast means placing colors opposite each other on the color wheel next to each other in your painting. When the colors are both intense, the effect is electric. When one is bright and the other muted, the bright one sings.

5. With temperature contrast, warm and cool colors work together to create a sense of movement: warm colors advancing and cool colors receding. Radiance emanates from artwork with predominantly warm colors. When a cool temperature dominates, warm contrasts keep the piece from seeming unpleasantly chilly.

Principle in Action: The Impressionists relied on temperature contrast rather than value contrast to suggest light. Paul Cezanne used contrasts in color temperature to manipulate form and space.

HINT: All complementary contrasts are also temperature contrasts, but not all temperature contrasts are complementary.

6. Size contrast refers to the relative area or quantity of a color. A large area of color makes a strong statement, but many small areas of color, especially if they are very intense and surrounded by a large area of lower intensity, can create energy and movement. But beware, pure color can be overwhelming, so when the large area is lower in intensity, even small bits of color within it appear brighter than usual.

For more on Color Contrast, see Exploring Color Revised pp. 30-31.

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Click the picture below for an enlarged view.

Maintaining Control with Contrast.

In The Invaders (watercolor on paper, 17 3/4 x 40 1/4), Homer O. Hacker has created a striking contrast by placing bold black crows against a high-key background. By avoiding strong contrasts in the background and by repeating the smaller black shapes of additional birds, he controls where the viewer's eye goes and leads it back to his focal point.

Click the picture below for an enlarged view.

Letting the Color Sing.

By surrounding pure yellow light with veils of muted scarlets, blues and violets in Radiance (watercolor on paper, 15 x 22), I used the principle of intensity contrast to let the color glow.

This article has appeared on the Watercolor Magic web site.