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 firstname.lastname@example.org with “Pastel Pointers” on the subject line.