What is Contrast?

Contrast is difference, or to be more precise, Contrast is the arrangement of opposite elements within a piece of art or design to create visual interest and/or hierarchy. These opposites could include opposite tones (light/dark), colours (red/green), textures (smooth/rough), though any opposites will do really.

Why Contrast is important?

We all know that both Art & Design are powerful tools for communicating and sharing our ideas. But there is a catch. Recent studies have shown that the average human attention span is a measly 8 seconds. Both Artists and Designers need to find ways to catch people's interest and hold their attention for longer, and this is where the principles of design help. 

The Matchmaker (1625) Gerard van Honthorst

Used correctly, putting opposites together to create contrast looks really good. It's a powerful tool for creating work that is visually exciting because contrasts attracts our attention. Artists have used contrast to create dramatic compositions for decades using techniques like chiaroscuro. 

2.  Focus

iPod Advert (2003)

Contrast can also be used to tell people where to look or to direct their attention. The adverts for the early iPods used high contrast very effectively to attract people's attention quickly. 

The ads featured black silhouettes on brightly coloured backgrounds creating an image with lots of contrast. To make it stand out even more the iPod and Headphones appear in white on top of the silhouette making it stand out even more clearly. 

3.  Organization

Spotify's Found Them First Advert (2015)

Building off the attention span statistic again, let us assume that your design is easy to consume and customers need less than 10 seconds to view it. But how do you know that customers’ takeaway from that piece of communication was what you intended them to?

Spotify's "Found Them First" advert did this brilliantly, using contrast to emphasise the word "First" which is the key message of their advert.

Contrast of Colour

One of the most commonly discussed ways of creating contrast is by using contrasting colours. Contrasting colours are easy to identify, they are simply opposites on the colour wheel. So for example, the opposite of red is green and the opposite of blue is orange. You can read more about Colour Theory here.

Artists and designers often combine opposite colours to create contrast and make things stand out. For example, Irn Bru packaging deliberately uses Orange and Blue to make their products stand out more on the shelves, which in turn increases the number of people who buy their products

Contrast of Tone

Empire of Light (1953-4) René Magritte

Tone contrast, or the use of light and dark tones, is another effective way to create contrast in Design & Art. The bigger the difference between the lightest and darkest tones, the bigger the contrast.

Areas of high contrast draw more attention, for example in René Magritte's "Empire of Light", Magritte used tone contrast to create depth and form within the composition. Your eyes are drawn to the lamp and the sky because they have a high level of contrast compared to their surroundings.

Contrast of Shape/Form

Playing with shapes is also fun and you can experiment endlessly. Contrasting shapes means using geometrical vs. organic shapes, spiky vs. smooth shapes, or even circles vs. squares. Imagine how many possibilities you have!

Remember that this doens't have to be literal shapes like squares and circles, it can also be the shape of objects

The Laundry Boat of Pont de Charenton (1885) Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau’s “The Laundry Boat of Pont de Charenton” shows how contrasting shapes work together to produce a stunning landscape.

The organic shapes and soft edges in the clouds and trees contrast with the rigid and long rectangular buildings with their hard edges. This contrast helps to make the buildings stand out more against the background and makes the painting 'pop'.

Contrast of Size/Scale

Size contrast is another important aspect of graphic design that can be used to create contrast. By using elements of different sizes within a design, a graphic designer can create visual interest and hierarchy. For example, a designer might use large headings and small body text to create a clear hierarchy within a layout.

Playing with sizes can produce some really exciting and interesting effects. For example this re-imagined poster for the Film 'Rocky' uses the contrast between a large figure in the foreground with a tiny figure in the distance to draw your eye into the poster and towards the title.

Rolling Roadshow (2010) Olly Moss

Contrast of Typography

Typography is another aspect of graphic design that can be used to create contrast. This can be achieved through the use of different font styles, sizes, and weights. For example, a graphic designer might use a bold, sans-serif font for headings and a more subtle, serif font for body text to create contrast and hierarchy within a design.

Final Tips

In conclusion, contrast is an important aspect of art that can be achieved through the use of various techniques, including color, value, form, and composition. Contrast can be used effectively to create visual interest, depth, and mood within an artwork. Be careful with how you use contrast. If you use too much it will feel like a punch in the eye to the viewer, not enough and you won't engage your viewer enough.

Not Enough Contrast

Just Right

Too Much Contrast