What does “simultaneous contrast” mean?

Simultaneous contrast is a term used to describe a visual phenomenon. Everything in the visual world has a relationship. By understanding these relationships, we’ll make better choices and end up with paintings that better relay the natural world around us. The mind makes judgments from the information provided by the eyes, so it’s imperative to learn to see with sensitivity. 

Simply put, simultaneous contrast teaches us that everything is affected by its opposite. Something will look lighter when placed next to something dark, and warmer when placed next to something cool, and visa versa. I’m fairly tall (6’3”) and in most situations I appear tall, but if I’m on a bus with professional basketball players, I appear short. I didn’t change, but my context did. When we paint, areas of shadow and light get us into trouble because we attach black and white to them. But look at the scale of value relationships, and you’ll see that what appears to be a highlight in one area becomes a shadow in another. It didn’t change, but its relationship did.

Simultaneous contrast also applies to color relationships. A color might appear cool in one setting and then warm in another due to the relationship it shares with the adjacent colors. This is why the choices we make when painting have ramifications. It’s all about relationships.
“Simultaneous contrast is not just a curious optical phenomenon; it is the very heart of painting.”–Josef Albers (German artist/educator; 1888-1976)

In this value scale, representing black to white with a middle value running through the middle, notice how each side of the individual values change; the middle value strip looks darker or lighter depending on its relationship to the other values.

Richard McKinley is a painter, workshop instructor and contributing writer for The Pastel Journal. To ask a question about painting concepts and pastels techniques, email The Pastel Journal at pjedit@fwpubs.com with “Pastel Pointers” on the subject line.

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3 thoughts on “What does “simultaneous contrast” mean?

  1. Julie

    I have painted with pastels for many, many years now and have at times a love-hate relationship with them. My frustrations come with the delicate nature of pastels. Often times, I paint a piece I like well enough to frame and enter in a show, etc. only to find excess pastel dust on the matting over time. Over the years, I have done what I’ve been taught or have read to remove excess dust, such as "spanking" the back of the painting, fixing the first couple of layers in the initial painting, and/or burnishing the final painting with a sheet of glassine and the heel of my hand. In my early years, I fixed all my work, only to realize that fixative dulled the beautiful highlights too much. Do you have any suggestions as to how to keep pastel dust off your mats after they are framed? And do you primarily work on sanded surfaces as I am under the impression that those hold the pastel layers the best? Thanks so much!

  2. Dennis

    Thank you for sharing and helping me with both your articles in the Pastel Journal and now here… and what is even better, at least for me is that you respond to questions…

    This will help me so much as I am learning to paint with pastels.

  3. Sally

    Thank you for starting this blog specifically for pastel pointers. I’m new to painting and pastels. I devour each issue of The Pastel Journal, but this blog will be another avenue for learning about this beautiful medium.