Thursday, February 21, 2013

Contrast in Context

Many of you might know that contrast is important for a good composition, but many do not realize, at least not consciously, is that contrast is a complex beast that comes in many different forms, so there are many ways to achieve contrast to help create a strong composition. The different forms include value contrast, simultaneous contrast (part of color theory), contrast in color saturation, in texture, in detail and in size. While it is not needed to include every form of contrasts, it is needed to have two or three of these forms to create a strong focus in a composition.

The reason contrast helps create focus is because our brains are hardwired to automatically look for differences, which is a human survival trait, so we can use this innate behavior to get our viewers to focus on what we wish. If you like adding lots of hidden detail, don’t worry because they will look at the rest of your image, because while the human eye locks on to differences it is constantly tracking for more information and they will, overtime, discover any little gems you have planted. So lets take some time and examine the different forms of contrast and how they work in creating focus.

Contrast in Value

Of course, this is the most well known form of contrast and the most straight forward. To put value contrast simply; light against dark. If you have an image that has a range of dark values then you want your subject to be significantly lighter in its value range than the rest of your image. A good example would be a man standing in a dark room but he is illuminated by a spot light. If you image is range of mostly light values then you want your subject to be of significantly dark values. Either direction that you use this form of contrast will create more focus for your composition.
Notice how the value of the ship makes it stand out more than what is happening to the right hand side of the painting.

Color Saturation Contrast

This is very similar to value contrast, not only does this help create focus but can also make things look either very drab or very intense depending on the mood you are trying to convey. It works mechanically the same as value contrast.
Notice how the saturation of her skin and umbrella stands out more than the background which is subdued in its saturation.

Simultaneous Contrast

Simultaneous contrast is part of color theory and it occurs when you have one color adjacent, but not overlapping, to its color compliment or analogous compliment. When complimentary or analogous complimentary colors are side by side then those colors appear more vivid to our eyes.  When one of these colors is used in combination with low saturation contrast then the color with stronger saturation becomes vivid, but the complimentary color at low saturation is not noticeable and doesn’t always register as the color it actually is, so you will have a color that is strong, creates focus and one that doesn’t show colors you don’t want to show, but are really there in order to enhance the colors you do want to show.
Notice how the orange and yellow colors stand out and look more vivid against the blue background and vice versa.

Contrast in Texture

Contrast can also be created through the density and different types of texture. The first way to create contrast through texture, is to have your main focus to have significantly more or less texture than the rest of your composition. Another way to create contrast through texture is to have texture that totally differs from your main subject and the rest of your composition. A good example is to have something that is totally smooth like an apple set against a background of stucco wall. The rough texture of the wall will contrast against the smooth skin of the apple, but the difference in texture will also emphasize both textures, so the apple will seem very smooth and the wall very rough. Using texture that opposes each other in extremes like rough to smooth, soft to hard, shiny to dull and so on will produce the most noticeable results.
Notice the smooth and soft texture of the water makes the rocks and shells of the turtles more rough in comparison.

Contrast in Detail

The level between detail and the subject of your composition is another way to achieve focus. The simplest way of course to approach this is through the extreme of having your subject having the most detail versus a background of minimal or suggested detail. We still take in the suggestion of the background which gives our subject context for it’s surroundings and allows us to soak in the level of detail of the subject. The reverse can be done as well but the end result might be different in which the background now becomes a focus, but this can be a good strategy if you want a composition that is a world of a lot of hidden details that your viewers might enjoy.
Notice that Alice is the subject and that she stands out but most of the detail is in the rest of the composition.

Contrast in Size

Lastly we have contrast in size in which your subject is either the smallest but noticeable object in your composition in perhaps in a piece where everything is oversized, for example: a tiny man exploring a desk that looks like it belongs to a giant. Vice versa, you have your subject the largest object in your composition, for example: Godzilla or Cthulhu looming over an entire city. Again this is merely tricking the mind into noticing what is different.
Notice how Cthulhu looms in his size to the city but we also notice the girl because how small she is relative to him and the city.


Now most of the examples of contrast I have given out, are of course, are all in the extreme but this is of course just a starting point and often a composition can have more than one focus, so using a variety or different levels of these contrast methods will help, but one mustn’t ignore other tools of composition such as directional line, mass, balance, suggestion of movement and many, many, more compositional tools. If you would like a good book on these compositional tools and rules then I would highly suggest the book Framed Ink “Drawing and composition for visual storytellers by Macross Mateu-Mestre which is jammed packed full of great information