The Two Ts of Painting | Theory and Technique, Part 1 | The Contrast Effect

Learning to paint representationally can be separated into two basic studies: theory and technique. I like to refer to these as the two Ts of painting. “Theory” encompasses an understanding of the physics of the natural world around us, how we visually perceive it, and how best to represent it when painting. “Technique” encompasses the mastery of the necessary methods required to work with a specific medium, like pastel, which are as varied as there are artists. In a series of postings, I will revisit some of the major aspects of the two Ts. Part One will begin with the theory of Contrast Effect, which includes the visual phenomenon referred to as Simultaneous Contrast.

pastel pointers about contrast with richard mckinley

The same mid-value gray surrounded by white and black. On one it is a shadow, on the other a highlight. The value didn’t change, just its context.

Last week’s blog post on scale” and how it can be used to effect in a painting, reminded me that every visual aspect of a painting is affected by one of my favorite visual theories—simultaneous contrast. As mentioned in last week’s post, the things represented in the confines of a painting’s border are an illusion. We arrange the shapes, edges, values and colors with pigment and the viewing audience identifies them. When a painting is viewed, the relationships of the portrayed elements within the space are compared and visual contrast is established. Dark, light, warm, cool, large, small, sharp, soft, and so on are all relative to what is in the space. We could say that nothing is what it is until it has a relationship.

French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul coined the term Simultaneous Contrast in the 1800s. As director of the dye works at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris, he received complaints about the appearance of colored dyes appearing to change across various textiles. His research concluded that the perceived dye color was being visually influenced by its surroundings. If the surrounding area was darker in value, the color appeared lighter; if the area was warmer in color temperature, it appeared cooler, and visa versa. They were simultaneously contrasting each other. Chevreul ultimately published his findings in a book titled The Laws of Contrast of Colour.

While the theory of simultaneous contrast may be relatively easy to comprehend—areas will be visually influenced by the color next to them—it can often be difficult to implement. When we paint, we become intensely focused on the area in which we’re working. Individual color, value and chroma selections are made based on our vision for the painting without thought of the surrounding area’s influence. If these areas are not indicated early in the painting process, or taken into consideration when choosing individual pastel sticks, the final painting will often appear wrong, just like the dyes at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. A good way to avoid this situation is to start a painting with a simple underpainting in which major color and value relationships are established early, or by doing a small preliminary painting in advance of working larger, to work out the major value/color relationships. Another useful tip is to indicate the lightest light, darkest dark, and any extremely important colors with small marks early in the painting process. Having them visually present will influence the other value and color choices as the painting progresses.

When painting, I remind myself constantly that what appears to be a shadow in one area can be a highlight in another, and what appears warm in color temperature in one area can appear cold in another. It amazes me the number of times the darkest portion of a thundercloud in a stormy sky ends up the same value as the lightest portion of an illuminated tree. Without a comparative relationship, I can easily make the cloud shadows too dark and the tree highlights too light. Until the surrounding relationships are established, it is all conjecture. Simultaneous contrast theory is the key.


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