Amplify Visual Impact with Contrasting Elements

Drawing on the Difference

Want viewers to give your drawings more than a cursory glance? Use visual and conceptual contrasts for dramatic impact.

by Anthony Waichulis

Timothy Jahn introduces visual and conceptual contrasts in Elegant Morning (charcoal, 10×71/2), including those of surface textures, surface pattern and physical temperature.

In the October 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, Anthony Waichulis shows how to infuse ordinary objects with life. In some drawings, ordinary objects seem to take on distinctive roles, thereby bringing a work to life. The secret behind this transformation and resulting dynamism may be just a simple matter of contrasting elements. There are many types of contrast and juxtaposition you can use to make your work more engaging. In this article we’ll explore five of them.


1. Value Contrast

The manner in which we balance values in a work can convey a wide range of dynamic visual effects. Even the way we perceive individual values in a work is heavily influenced by surrounding lights and darks. For example, lights may become more powerful and piercing when surrounded by a sea of black, while hints of dark may serve as striking accents to a high-key arrangement. Overall, unequal distributions of value may shift a somewhat tranquil composition into a compelling piece wrought with tension and drama.

To illustrate this, Edward Dillon’s Short but Meaningful (below) defines a lantern with a sequence of small, isolated highlights amidst many heavy darks. Each highlight emerges from an ocean of black just to the extent that it reveals the subject. This uneven juxtaposition of light and dark transforms an arrangement of ordinary subjects into a theatrical piece.


2. Size and Shape Contrast

Opposing or complementary sizes and shapes are always great vehicles for strong visual dynamics. “David and Goliath” juxtapositions have been dueling on the surfaces of masterpieces for centuries. Looking once again at Dillon’s Short but Meaningful (below), we see the tiny bird peering out from the towering lamp’s shadow, an image that creates a sense of tension. Size and shape dichotomies like this can yield compelling effects.

Edward Dillon achieves striking juxtapositions of value and size in Short but Meaningful (charcoal, 12×9) by contrasting the looming darkness of the mine lantern and surroundings with the small, bright-feathered bird.


3. Texture Contrast

From the shiny, smooth surface of an apple to the granular, furrow-ridden surface of a rough stone, contrasting textures can add a striking dynamic to your work. Surface textures can seem more lifelike if they contrast with one another.

In Emma Hirst’s drawing Peace (below), we can see an array of textures. From the hard, etched metal of the gun to the soft, delicate petals of the flower, the various surfaces come alive as they play off one another’s characteristics. You can enhance the impact of any texture by finding opposing surfaces with which to contrast it.


4. Color Contrast

Color is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Its effects range from the physical to the psychological. There are numerous ways to poise contrasting colors against each other to make your work compelling. You may consider introducing hints of color into achromatic or black-and-white works for various eye-grabbing effects.

Taking a second look at Hirst’s Peace, we see what may be her most obvious contrast—a single splash of color in a world that seems devoid of it. The red she introduced, while not very intense, seems to jump off the surface of the drawing because of the adjacent colorless areas. Experimentation with selective color or color intensity contrasts can lead to some effective juxtapositions.


5. Conceptual Contrast

While the use of differing values, shapes and colors may be obvious contrasts, the addition of conceptual dichotomies can really lift your drawing to the next level. In each of the pieces we’ve discussed, we can see a multitude of opposing elements that may unravel a story, convey a message or invoke emotion. Let’s look at some of the opposing conceptual elements at play:

In Short but Meaningful (above) by Edward Dillon, we see the juxtaposition of a small, delicate canary against several dark, imposing mining implements. This combination calls attention to the role such birds played in the mines. The tension between the vulnerable, light-feathered bird and the looming metal and stone delivers quite a punch.

Emma Hirst’s Peace (above) portrays several powerful dualities that are often visited by artists—life and death, and war and peace. Amplified by contrasts of size and color, this work communicates in an impactful manner.

Elegant Morning (above) by Timothy Jahn offers us an intimate scene filled with swirling movement. Strong balances of value and texture are accompanied by another implied conceptual juxtaposition—one of temperature. Here we see what we would assume is a chilled, pristine column of milk piercing the surface of hot coffee or tea. These opposing elements create a new level of contrast that adds even more depth to this drawing.


In Conclusion

It’s always a worthwhile exercise to try to identify as many contrasting elements as you can when observing some of your favorite art. Along the way you may make some fascinating discoveries about new ways you can add contrasts to your own work.

For example, take a minute to examine the work Tea Party (below) by Star Galler, and see how many opposing elements you can find. Then consider how adding a few of these elements will impact your next drawing. I wish you every success!

In Tea Party (charcoal, 15×13) by Star Galler, we can explore juxtapositions of size and surface texture while pondering conceptual contrasts.


Anthony Waichulis won the 2006 certification as a “living master” by the Art Renewal Center and has established a national reputation for his trompe l’oeil paintings. An art instructor at his own atelier, the Waichulis Studio in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, he is represented by John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. Visit to learn more. Note: Featured artists are students at the Waichulis Studio.


Click here to find this article and more in the October 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

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