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CONTRAST: The Principle of Design

A guide for teachers

CONTRAST is the principle design that I’d argue is one of the easiest to use! Contrast is used throughout all the different elements of art, and is an easy way to make any piece look ten times more appealing. But let’s start by defining contrast, the principle of design!

Are your students not fans of reading? Don’t worry. We have a short and sweet video all about contrast that gives them a fun and quick rundown of the element, designed for grade 5 - 12!

What is Contrast?

Contrast is all about opposite elements being placed next to each other in order to emphasize certain subjects. For instance, having light and dark colours, smooth and rough textures, large and small shapes, so on and so forth. These all have the ability to create visual interest and variety -- another principle of design! This can be done with any element of art, but let’s dive into how you’d do that first.

Contrast with Colour and Value

Colour and value are two heavily linked elements of art, since value is what determines the lightness and darkness of your colours. You’ve most likely heard about contrasting colours a lot when working with colour wheels -- in fact, contrast is more heavily linked to value compared to all the other elements!

Knives by Andy Warhol
Knives by Andy Warhol

Using opposing colours and values is what adds your emphasis -- another principle of design. Emphasis is all about making something on an art piece stand out, and contrast is a key factor for making that happen! Often you’ll use complementary colour palettes (or opposite colours) in order to get the best results, but that isn't always the case. The general rule is that if you have loads of one colour and a small bit of another, the smaller amount of colour will automatically stand out.

Knives by Andy Warhol is a great example of contrast that doesn’t use complementary colours, but uses value. The pure black objects really stick out against the bright yellow background. In fact, even though they aren’t complementary, yellow and black are the colours with the most contrast. This is why street signs, warning labels, and movie subtitles are often yellow and black!

Contrast with Shape, Form and Line

Stand Up Hero by Hikari Shimoda
Stand Up Hero by Hikari Shimoda

Now, shape and form are fairly linked, but why is line lumped in with them? This is because line is often used in line art, which is a way artists can emphasize their drawn forms. Bolder line art often emphasizes the silhouette of a character or form, whereas our thinner line art is used for detailing.

Contrast can be linked to detail when it comes to shapes, forms and lines. If you have a super detailed piece with a few simple forms, those simple forms will stand out against a heavy amount of detail. Contrast can also be linked to size or subject matter. If you have a ton of tiny objects surrounding one very large object, the large object will be emphasized. Or, if you have a glowing lamp post in the middle of a forest, that lamp post will stick out.

Stand Up Hero by Hikari Shimoda has a lot of contrast, though it doesn’t seem like it at first glance. You have a super simple figure with very bold, black line art surrounded by a LOT of intense detail. This allows the figure to stand out against the background!

Contrast with Texture

Man with a Golden Helmet by Rembrandt
Man with a Golden Helmet by Rembrandt

Contrast in texture heavily relies on “opposite” surfaces, such as smooth vs. rough, soft vs. hard, so on and so forth. For instance, a few hard rocks next to soft fur will stick out because of their difference in texture.

Within paintings, sometimes it’s the difference of actual texture versus implied texture. Man with a Golden Helmet by Rembrandt is a really good example of both texture with contrast, and contrast with colour and value as well. The golden helmet stands out because it’s a bright gold against a dark background, but if you were to see the painting live, it would be the only place with real texture. This is because of the painting technique he used called impasto, which is when you layer thick globs of paint onto a canvas for texture. Rembrandt would often add impasto to brighter parts of his painting for contrast!

Contrast with Space

Kids by Mario von Rickenbach and Michael Frei
Kids by Mario von Rickenbach and Michael Frei

Contrast in space has to do with how your objects are placed in a composition. How much negative space is there, versus positive space? If your main subject is in focus while everything else is blurred, that’s a really easy way to emphasize and bring focus to your main subject. But more often than not, space is linked with every other element of art since it’s really all about how much “space” an object takes up. Usually, if the main subject takes up less space and/or is the opposite of whatever surrounds it, it’ll stand out!

The game Kids by Mario von Rickenbach and Michael Frei has a particular section where the main subject looks exactly the same as every other subject, but there’s a ring of negative space around them in order to distinguish them from every other figure. This ring allows players to identify the main subject and also creates contrast with space -- one small figure with a ring of negative space against a sea of crowded individuals.

Contrast is actually quite easy to get the hang of! It can be simplified down to opposites -- the more opposite you make your main subject to the surrounding area, the better it’ll be. Use contrast within your pieces to create a really obvious main subject or focal point and you’ll create fantastic works of art!

If you’d like to learn more about the principles of design or the elements of art, be sure to tune into our YouTube channel dedicated to making art education easily accessible to everyone! More classroom resources like this one can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we’ve covered all of the elements of art. If you’d like worksheets related to the elements and principles, check out our teachers pay teachers page, where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom!

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around contrast, visit this quick and easy resource!

If you’d like worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down the elements of art, art history resources, and drawing resources!

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