Best Art Advice: Value Contrast
Some of the best advice I've gotten over the years came from my mother, who was a brilliant business woman as well as a talented artist. I learned all kinds of useful life skills from her, like repairing sheet rock walls and buying and selling real estate and cars. But whenever we got together to just visit, we always talked about the latest thing we had seen or learned about art.
For a while, Mom had subscriptions to several art magazines. I didn't have the funds for magazines at that time, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on them when I got to her house! I would pour over her art magazines and books as we talked about their contents.
During one of our visits, we were talking about values in art, or the various degrees of lightness and darkness in the picture plane. (Not your typical mother and daughter conversation, I know, but I got lucky!) Then Mom brought up her favorite piece of art advice she got from one of her art teachers:
Make your darks DARK
and your lights LIGHT.
It was the first time I'd heard about the concept of value contrast, and I haven't heard much about it since then.
At the time, Mom liked to paint realistic subjects in oil on canvas. I was in to drawing, collage, and fiber arts, and had not yet begun painting. So, while these words of wisdom stuck with me, they did not really hit home until I started working with bolder color in soft pastels and paint many years later.
Why Value Contrast Is So Important
Contrast in art is simply the difference between things, or where two very different elements are placed next to each other. Sort of like the old opposites attract theory. Contrast is how our eyes tell when one thing ends and another begins, and how we see light, shadows, and atmosphere. Also, our eyes recognize the areas in a painting with the greatest contrast as the most important, and are continually drawn back there.
Contrasting elements in a painting could be a soft line against a hard line, smooth texture next to rough texture, vivid color by grayed color, or using colors next to each other that are opposites on the color wheel. All of these types of contrasts are important tools for an artist, but they all depend on value contrast, the degree of lightness against darkness, to be used successfully.
Value contrast can be used to turn a bland, uninspiring painting into a powerful, visually exciting painting, sometimes with only some minor adjustments.
It seems like every time I get stuck in a painting and don't know what it is about it that bugs me, it turns out to have something to do with the values and how well I've used value contrast. When I step back and really eyeball a piece of art that I'm not happy with, I usually find that I've made it in almost all one value. Sometimes I forget about the coolest tool I have in my paintbox! Even after all these years of art making, I have to remind myself of this one great truth:
Value Contrast Is An Artist's Superpower!
These are some great tools for understanding value contrast that I use all the time. There's my big color wheel, two different types of gray scale value finder cards, a piece of red plastic film that blocks out color when you look through it, and my gray plastic viewfinder that slides open and closed so a subject can be isolated. These were super important to me when I painted realistic subjects, and I still use them regularly in my abstract work.
This is a part of a continuing series of memes and blog posts about the Best Art Advice I've found so far. Please feel free to like, comment, and share this post. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject.
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I obsessively make bold and vibrant abstract paintings. I can't help myself. It's just what I have to do. But I am passionate about art of all kinds, and I love to think, talk, and write about it, then share it with you. Please sign up for my Insider's List so we can keep in touch.