I have been fond of painting high-contrast scenes lately. Below is one I’m currently working on, Minnippi, Green, Contrast. High-contrast paintings are stunning when they work, but garish when they don’t. It’s a careful balance between pushing the contrast without overdoing it and whilst making sure the painting works as a whole.
In light of this, I put together a few tips for high-contrast paintings.
- Contrast as the Focal Point
- Lean Towards More Contrast Than Less
- It’s All About the Relationships
- Contrast Multiple Elements
- Link the Different Areas
- Different Segments, Different Goals
- Contrast and Balance
- Key Takeaways
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
(Before diving into this post, make sure to download a free copy of my Beginner's Guide to Painting.)
Contrast as the Focal Point
Contrast isn’t a physical object like a tree or flower vase. Rather, it’s one of the artistic elements that help us define and articulate the subject. And there are many variations of it. You could have a contrast of light (value), color, texture, form, shape, line, pattern, brushwork, and so on.
It’s possible for contrast to be the focal point of your work. This is often the case when the contrast is so strong and compelling that it overpowers the subject it defines. The subject becomes merely a vehicle to convey the contrast. Many of Claude Monet’s sunrise and sunset paintings are a great example of this. Take The Houses of Parliament, Sunset (below). I don’t want to put words in Monet’s mouth, but I would argue that the painting is more about contrast than it is the Houses of Parliament. The Houses merely represent a good and interesting point of contrast for the surrounding sunset colors.
Below are two of my paintings where contrast is the focal point. The first depicts sunrise at Caloundra. I remember standing on the shore that morning, about to launch my kayak for a spot of fishing. As I painted this, I focused almost entirely on the contrast between light and shadow, warm and cool. The clouds, sky, water, and land merely provided a good environment to convey this contrast.
(Fun fact: After launching the kayak, I caught and released my trophy fish from the last 15 years. A painting can store and spark memories in me like nothing else. I can look at all my paintings and remember what I was doing and feeling at that point in my life.)
The second is a high-contrast painting from my tree series. Contrast is more important than the tree itself. If the tree were the focal point, I would have rendered it with finer detail and focused the contrast around it.
Painting with contrast as the focal point doesn’t mean you ignore the subject and objects. It just changes how you approach the painting and what elements you decide to push and restrain.
Lean Towards More Contrast Than Less
If contrast is the focus of your painting, it’s better to lean in that direction. Err on the side of having more contrast than less. That way, any mistakes or oversteps you make are at least in the direction of your idea.
If you’re painting a sunset, it would be better to make your lights warmer, brighter, and more brilliant; your shadows cooler and darker.
Below is one of my favorite paintings by George Henry, River Landscape by Moonlight. It’s a simple painting done well. Henry used his artistic license to push the contrast here slightly. He leaned into the contrast, rather than away from it. Of course, there is a limit to pushing in favor of your ideas. Had Henry used pure cadmium orange for the moon, it would look garish.
In my tree painting below, contrast is one of the main ideas. The warm, sharp lights against the cool, vague shadows. As I painted this, I leaned in the direction of this contrast. I erred on the side of warmer, sharper lights and cooler, vaguer shadows. This way, any mistakes will appear like purposeful exaggerations of my ideas, rather than as mistakes.
This goes for anything in art. Push in favor of your ideas about the subject. For figure drawing, you might want to have more gesture and movement than less. For cityscape painting, you might want it to look harder and more rigid. I believe I first heard of this concept from Steve Huston, though I cannot remember where from. His figure drawings and paintings are perfect examples of the ideas they represent. You can see him really push the gestures and movements of the subjects.
It’s All About the Relationships
When painting high-contrast scenes (or any subject for that matter), it’s important that you get the relationships right. All the parts must fit together. This is more of a challenge with high-contrast scenes, as you must deal with segments that are widely different. It’s easier with low-contrast scenes, where all the parts have a natural harmony.
First, you must focus on the big-picture relationships. Like the lightest light against the darkest dark. Or the warm colors against the cool colors. These relationships will do most of the work in terms of conveying realism. Get them wrong, and it doesn’t matter how well you paint the rest.
Once you’re satisfied with the big-picture relationships, then focus on the more intricate relationships. These are the relationships within the segments. For example, the relationships between the mid-tones, or between the lights, or the darks. Getting these right will give your painting a refined and finished appearance.
Take my painting below, Gold Coast, Path to the Sea. The big-picture relationships are between the light area in the back (sea, sky, and parts of the beach) and the dark area in the foreground. At the start of the painting, I focused almost entirely on capturing these relationships.
I was then able to focus on the more intricate relationships. Such as the relationships between the blues of the sky; the green and yellow leaves, or the dark purples and dark greens of the foreground.
Contrast Multiple Elements
You can create a more powerful result by contrasting multiple elements. Instead of just contrasting light against dark, you could incorporate color temperature contrast as well-warm lights against cool darks. Or you could incorporate brushwork and texture-thick lights against thin shadows. Or you could use all three-warm, thick lights against cool, thin shadows. The latter would have the strongest impact.
That’s what I did in my Gold Coast, Sand Dune painting below. The lights are warm and conveyed with thick, luscious brushwork. The darks of the sand dune are cool, thin, and vague.
Nicolai Fechin was a master of contrasting multiple elements whilst maintaining a sense of harmony. Take his portrait below and notice the contrast of the subject’s face and hands against the surroundings. Fechin painted her face and hands with fine rendering, clean and soft edges, and careful detail. For the rest of the painting, he used rough brushwork and perhaps palette knife work, broken color and edges, and vague detail. And he did so in a way that it all works together. It looks like a whole painting, not an arrangement of beautifully painted parts.
Link the Different Areas
Every part of the painting needs to work in relation to the surrounding parts. This means that two completely different, contrasting areas need to have some kind of link or relationship between each other.
In a high-contrast portrait, that link might be a sharp gradation from the lights to the darks. In a landscape, you might have strands of grass from the light areas pushing up into the shadows. But the links don’t need to be direct. They could be something more subtle like the use of similar colors.
Let’s go back to the Fechin painting. How does Fechin link the subject’s head and hands with the rest of the painting? Here’s what I see:
- Soft edges around the shadows help lead your eyes into the surrounding areas.
- Overall restrained color theme.
- Similar colors between her bag and hair.
- Brushwork for the wall roughly follows the outline of the subject, particularly around her hair.
- Continuation of lines and gestures.
Different Segments, Different Goals
Some high-contrast scenes effectively have two distinct segments of roughly equal significance. Those segments will have different goals and should be painted as such.
My Wellington Point, High Contrast painting is a great example. The way I painted the shadowed foreground, the dark tree trunks, and the overhanging leaves and branches was different from the way I painted the high-key background. In fact, each painting session was dedicated to either one of the segments, with little overlap. This allowed me to ensure I painted with the right mindset and approach for the right segment. Painting dense leaves and branches is vastly different from painting shimmering water and sky.
My goal for the shadowed foreground was to convey the solidness of the tree, the denseness and broken color of the leaves and branches, and the darkness of the shadows.
My goal for the high-key background was to convey the shimmering light of the midday sun.
My goal for the overall painting was a striking contrast between the two segments.
Below is another example where you might have different goals for different segments. The nature of the shadowed foreground is vastly different from that of the bright background. On a separate point, notice how the plants in the foreground shoot up across the high-key background. This is a subtle way of linking the two areas together.
Contrast and Balance
In terms of balance, a general rule of thumb is that a small area of sharp contrast will have the same impact as a large area of soft contrast. Take my Minnippi painting below. The dark tree trunks and branches have the same impact, if not more, as the surrounding grass, leaves, and sky. This is despite the trunks and branches taking up a relatively small area in the painting. (You can see a video of this painting here.)
You can see the painting come together in this video:
In Efim Volkov’s Seascape, consider where your eyes are first drawn? For most of you, I imagine the boat in the distance or the rocks in the foreground. These are small areas of sharp contrast. They command your attention from the large area of relatively quiet space.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- Contrast is not a physical object, but it can be a focal point of your painting. Claude Monet has many examples of this.
- When painting high-contrast scenes, make sure to get the relationships right. First, focus on the big-picture relationships like the lightest light against the darkest dark. Then, focus on the more intricate relationships, like the relationships between the mid-tones.
- If contrast is a focus of your painting, it’s better to lean towards having more contrast than less.
- Combine multiple elements of contrast to make a greater statement.
- All the parts in your painting need to fit as one. This can be challenging when painting areas that are completely different and contrasting.
- Different segments might have different goals. You will need to tailor a unique approach to each segment.
- A small area of sharp contrast will have the same impact as a large area of soft contrast.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
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