7 Tips for High-Contrast Paintings

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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.

Dan Scott, Minnippi, Green, Contrast, 2021, 1200W
Dan Scott, Minnippi, Green, Contrast, 2021

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.

Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1903
Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1903

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.)

Dan Scott, Early Sunrise, Caloundra, 2020
Dan Scott, Early Sunrise, Caloundra, 2020

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.

Dan Scott, Tree Series, High Contrast, 2021
Dan Scott, Tree Series, High Contrast, 2021

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.

George Henry, River Landscape by Moonlight, 1887
George Henry, River Landscape by Moonlight, 1887

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.

Dan Scott, Gumdale, Tree in Shadow, 2021
Dan Scott, Gumdale, Tree in Shadow, 2021

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.

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 between 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.

Dan Scott, Gold Coast, Path to the Sea, 2021
Dan Scott, Gold Coast, Path to the Sea, 2021
Dan Scott, Gold Coast, Path to the Sea, 2021 (Relationships)

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.

Dan Scott, Gold Coast, Sand Dune, 2021
Dan Scott, Gold Coast, Sand Dune, 2021

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.

Nicolai Fechin, The Lady in Purple, 1908
Nicolai Fechin, The Lady in Purple, 1908

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.
Nicolai Fechin, The Lady in Purple, 1908
Nicolai Fechin, The Lady in Purple, 1908

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.

Dan Scott, Wellington Point, High Contrast 2021
Dan Scott, Wellington Point, High Contrast 2021

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.

George Henry, Noon, 1885
George Henry, Noon, 1885

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.)

Dan Scott, Minnippi, 2021, 700W
Dan Scott, Minnippi, 2021

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.

Principles Of Art - Efim Volkov, Seascape, 1895
Efim Volkov, Seascape, 1895

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.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

53 comments on “7 Tips for High-Contrast Paintings”

    • Very informative! By showing paintings as examples it helps to understand the concept especially for a beginner like me. Thank you.

      Reply
  1. Thanks for this. I oddly just ran into a contrast problem two days ago, with a dominant shadow so hideous I scraped it off and painted over the remainder. I now have a far better understanding of the complex nature of the problem and can see how to continue, despite the continuing appeal of the dumpster. Usually It takes months and a fresh eye to see what’s wrong, occasionally it’s instant. Not a nagging uncertainty, but a yikes.

    Reply
  2. Very clear and helpful, Dan, as I’m come to expect from you. Not painting for now. Hideous broken leg. 🤷🏻‍♀️

    Thanks.

    Reply
  3. I have been studying art on my own for a while now after having taken a couple of university classes. Art principles and theory can be overwhelming to a beginning artist and also lost after years of painting. You have a way of bringing a lot of information together that is real and accessible. Your examples are meaningful. And how generous that you send these summaries by email—thank you!

    Reply
  4. Dan Scott, your Wellington Point High Contrast painting is wonderful. Every email from you teaches me more and more about painting. I’m so glad we are on this journey together.

    Reply
  5. This article has made look more closely, on better planning an art piece. Chalk full of very constructive, and easy to understand information. Am a self taught artist, and this will be another brick to my foundation. I am very appreciative of you sharing this knowledge. God bless you and your team.

    Reply
  6. Hi Dan – as always, your post taught me something I was trying to figure out. This was one of my favorite lessons from you – informative, concise, clear. Thank you for taking the time to show us! Much appreciated.

    Have a great evening!

    Reply
  7. Once again an excellent and thoughtful discussion of an important topic. Your beautiful examples complement the points you make, helping us have that “Ah-ha!” moment.
    So much of what is put out digitally as art instruction or information is a waste of the digital space it occupies. Yours is unfailingly concise, instructive and enjoyable to read. I don’t believe I’ve ever read one of your posts without learning something valuable.

    Reply
  8. Thank you. This post was very helpful in reminding me of the power of contrast. I really enjoy your work so simple but full of atmosphere.

    Reply
  9. Thank you for showing me the fine points of light vs. dark texture vs. smooth ! I will enjoy implementing those points.Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    Reply
  10. Thank you for this article! I ‘grew up’ art-wise as a plein air painter with a fauvist bent & wanting my work to be ‘strong, bright and free’. This article clarified what I might do to deal w my heavy-handed, hard-edged ways to find some harmony for my high-contrast paintings. So appreciate your sharing – this article will make a big difference in how I make and judge my paintings.

    Reply
  11. A most valuable analysis. Plus, I am now enthralled by Scottish artist George Henry, whom I had not heard of. Thank you for your excellent insights and introduction to another great artist.

    Reply
  12. Thanks you, it was great as usuall.
    I identify myself very much with you when you said about remembering the moment, things and circunstancies I was in when I look at a picture I have done.
    Thanks,

    Maria Rosario

    Reply
  13. Thank you! Your timing on this lesson is perfect as I’ve just started the view from a porthole of British Airways at full altitude showing the colors of the rising sun up to infinity and the multi-faceted clouds below which are anything but a walk in the park! I’ve already run into the problem of blending seamlessly the colors of the sky. I’m using acrylic on canvas and am already wishing I’d chosen watercolor on paper!!’

    Reply
  14. This was just great! During a hiatus I was pondering what was wrong with my paintings. You have nailed it for me—more contrast will equal more life, more of me in my paintings!
    Excited to try this. Thanks!

    Reply
  15. Ive always thought of contrast as light and dark, or maybe warmth and coolness- but the Fechin portrait and your discription of the contrasting clarity and not is incredibly helpful. Great lesson. And thank you for bringing artists Ive not seen before into the lessons…where have they been hiding all my life?

    Reply
  16. Loved the contrast instruction which is important for many reasons. My personal reason is macular degeneration, but I still paint and have aspirations so will continue to paint

    Reply
    • Linda, I , too have (early) macular degeneration. One thing I am warned about is colors shifting with the loss of blue in particular. I have begun a series of block prints, (the ultimate black /white contrast) to prepare for this loss of color accuracy. I wonder if we will need a sighted person to point out our color errors as they happen. As Dan pointed out, a contrast in texture can be wonderful even in a limited or muted palette. Keep on working!

      Reply
  17. Thank you very much for this post and all of them! So succinctly and well written, they are clear to a semi beginner like myself. Although a watercolorist (with desire to try oils), the points you make are equally valid. Adding contrast will help me with my center of interest. Love the cool darks and warm lights concept!

    Reply
  18. I truly enjoyed reading your ideas and information. Thank you so much. I have not done any art since covid started, but I truly love looking at the paintings you provided, and the explanations. I keep thinking maybe tomorrow….

    Reply
  19. This post was so helpful. The paintings you used and the descriptions of how and where they used contrast really made it sink in for me. I will definitely refer back to this post many times to help me better understand this concept. Thank you so much for your time and effort to help newbies like me!

    Reply
  20. Hi,
    Thank you. Great and evocative paintings. They talk a lot of history of womanhood and landscapes related to local wilderness and fauna.
    Anti-culturalism, antisocial and also I find the paintings provocative and intriguing. Customs and personalities. Follow National Gallery of Portraits, London, UK

    Reply
  21. In attempting high-contrast scenes and high contrast as the focal point, I have run into challenges that are very well explained in this post. Thank you for covering the subject so clearly and thoroughly and offering clear examples of the concepts, all of which very effectively clarify the points. Getting the big-picture relationships first, combining multiple elements of contrast while achieving links and relationships among the different segments, I will continue to study and make use of this wonderful post!

    Reply
  22. Thank you for a very detailed lesson on the use of contrast. I love your Minnippi painting. I just began an oil painting of my snowy backyard, a fig tree which was loaded with snow, against the dark branches. As I continue my work on it, I will try to insert that concept of strong contrast, between light and dark. Your remarks are very helpful and encouraging.

    Reply
  23. Loved all your examples of contrast. Now I realize I do need more contrast in
    many of my paintings. Always looking for things to make them better. This
    certainly is one.
    Thank you for sharing your love for Art.

    Reply
  24. Thank you Dan, for your willingness to share as other a real artists in the past have done. Your newsletters are so helpful, instructive, and clear. I am not the only one who feels this way. We love to see the latest project that you are painting

    Reply
  25. WOW ! I loved the way you have explained all this. Very challenging . I am applying this use of stronger contrasts in my watercolour paintings. Makes quite a difference. Challenging, but something is happening that I did not expect. Thank you for just widening my attention.

    Reply
  26. Thank you so much. I have this new year some specific and particular things to learn about color, texture and form contrasts. I will certainty apply them to my paintings.

    Reply
  27. Dan,
    I always appreciate your lessons and suggestions. As a beginner I also appreciate how you present your lessons very clearly.
    Thank you, Linda

    Reply
  28. What an informative post. Thank you for great visual examples as well as clear explanations. I’m continuing to learn valuable information that has improved my paintings… and excites me to experiment with each new project.

    Reply
  29. Dan I enjoy all of your lessons but this is one of my favorites. Well explained for a topic that is difficult to grasp for me. The painting examples were perfect….your works expressed the concepts beautifully. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  30. Clear, concise writing and well-illustrated with both your own and others’ art. I am new to the Academy and wish I were retired (work 60 hours a week as chaplain and pastor) so that I could try everything you are demonstrating. Thank you for your generosity in sharing ideas with other artists in training.

    Reply
  31. Dan, Like all the others who have posted, I thank you for your clear and concise explanations of the various painting principles. Your help along my painting journey continues to be invaluable. Thanks to your generosity I’ve learned of techniques I wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. The use of high contrast is one of many ideas new to me, a new way of looking at my work.

    Reply
  32. Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information with us about high-contrast painting. It will help me, I hope, to make better art myself.

    Reply
  33. Thank you so much for all this great information! Most of it I don’t think I have considered before. I am saving this email so I can keep going over it as I learn to paint. So much to think about here!

    Reply
  34. I really like your concise explanations and vivid examples of both your own art and from art history. I particularly liked seeing your treatment of grass so similar to van gogh and the contrast of Monet’s sunset /cathedral. You give me courage and inspiration to keep on….

    Reply
  35. Thank you Dan. So clearly explained as usual and really important to me at the moment as I’m currently drawn to high contrast images and want to interpret them in an exciting way.
    You continue to be a real inspiration to me

    Reply
  36. Having painted for over 40 years, I realize after reading all your instructions, especially on contrasts, value, texture, soft and heavy application, where the eye is drawn, that I have not learned anything, but you are an excellent instructor and appreciate your advice. Attempting to incorporate what I have read and hopefully better understand and produce better work. Thank you so much.

    Reply

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