By Design | The Visual Contrast Effect

Recently, while attempting to organize my office area, I came across a simple 3×5 note card with two metal washers attached and the handwritten words, “Simultaneous Contrast?” in red. An artist friend sent this card to me after a workshop at which I had strongly emphasized the power of visual effect in our paintings. When first compared, the two washers appear to be very different. One is larger in circumference, while the other is considerably smaller. Even the internal openings appear to be different. With further scrutiny, it becomes apparent that while the outer dimensions are indeed very different, the internal openings are actually the same size. These two washers, when placed in close proximity, demonstrate one of the Visual Contrast Effects we most often overlook: size.

Most students of painting eventually become aware of the term “Simultaneous Contrast.” French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul first coined the phrase while researching complaints about dyes being utilized at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. He determined that the yarns’ colors hadn’t physically changed, just their perception. They were being influenced by what surrounded them. His research eventually led to the publication of “The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and Their Applications to the Arts”, in 1939. Charles Martel translated it into English in 1954 and the title was shortened. His work demonstrated what many artists already knew but had no scientific understanding of: that colors and values appear very different when placed next to their opposites (read my 2007 blog on the subject here).

Having an understanding of this visual phenomenon is very helpful for the more analytical-minded painter. It better explains why a certain color or value of pastel worked in one situation and didn’t in another. A good way to produce the effect is to place a middle value mark of gray onto a black space and then white. It’s perceived value will appear to change. For color, place the same neutral gray mark on complementary colors, like bright red and green. The gray should appear warmer on one and cooler on the other. In these examples, the gray didn’t change, just its surroundings.

The example of the washers may not be technically classified as simultaneous contrast in the purest understanding of the phenomenon, but they certainly do demonstrate an aspect of Visual Contrast Effect. When objects are placed into a painting’s composition, the viewer is associating to them and setting a size scale. Smaller trees in a landscape painting will make the mountains appear higher. A large cup and saucer in a still life painting will make an adjacent vase appear smaller, and so on. Nothing is by accident in a well thought-out painting. It is by design.


Two metal washers can remind us about visual contrast and scale in our paintings.


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