Contrast and Tone

Contrast is where light and dark areas meet. The eye is very sensitive to strong contrast and it can be a useful tool to draw attention to important areas of a drawing or painting. Where contrast is strong, the subject will stand out, where it is weak the subject will blend into the background. This is especially important when a picture is viewed from a distance and the detail provides fewer clues for the eye.

Distance
The eye draws a great deal of information from contrast. Objects become blue and hazy with distance and the contrast becomes weaker. By reducing the contrast in a drawing, you can imply distance. In the drawing below, note that the reducing contrast is a far more powerful visual clue than outlines of the mountains.

Dark and Light
When sketching, it is natural to work dark-on-light. However, contrast is just as effective if you work light-on-dark. Blocking in the area behind the cottage below makes a very powerful image.

Counterchange
Areas of constant tone are effective, but tones can be graduated to produce contrast too. This is called counterchange. In the church drawing below, we have 3 areas of importance, the sky, the trees and the church. Using flat tone would mean losing the strong contrast. However, by graduating the tones on the church tower we maintain a strong contrast over the entire drawing. This works because the eye is sensitive to a change of contrast and naturally tries to find straight lines in an image.

The Importance of Contrast
The importance of contrast cannot be overstated. It is easy to become enthralled with colour, but colour will only work well with good contrast. However, countless images have been produced in black and white. I sometimes paint a watercolour using a single colour such as sepia and the effect can be startling.

© Adrian James 2001


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