Principles of Contrast in Art

Whether your taste runs to bold abstracts or luxurious landscapes, you may face the same problems: an artwork that should harmonize with its surroundings is staring instead, or an artwork that you intended to be a showpiece is instead feeling bland.

Many people try to resolve this common home decorating issue by changing the color, but the answer may lie in increasing or decreasing contrast instead.

The following elements are some of the ways to create contrast. Focus on them to increase contrast; tone them down for blending and harmony. The best part? It’s often possible to achieve the effect by changing the mat or frame, so you can keep the artwork that first caught your eye.

Light vs. Dark. This is the basic form of contrast. Two different values of the same color may look more vivid than two different colors of roughly equal brightness. The tension between a light purple and a dark purple can be greater than that between a bright red and a bright blue.

Warm vs. Cool. This juxtaposes a warm color with a colder-feeling one. Complementary colors are one way to achieve it; moving away from the direct complement reduces the contrast (but may please the eye better).

Crowded vs. Spacious. A dense pattern plus a solid color creates a less traditional but still effective form of visual tension. For instance, a landscape with forest on one side yielding to an open beach will compel more attention than a consistent landscape of rolling hills, while bordering a busy print with a solid mat can better draw the eye.

Textured vs. Smooth. This generally only works with artworks that will usually be viewed up close, but the subtle differences can hold surprising visual power – especially when paired with another kind of contrast.

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