Using Color to Create Contrast in Your Paintings

Renaissance painters used mainly value contrast.
The Impressionists relied on warm-and-cool temperature contrast.
The Fauves and Modern color-field painters contrasted pure hues.

To create contrast is to create a difference. There are many theories written on how to achieve contrast in art. Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, and many other artists have written extensively about color theory.

The types of contrast that you will be creating in your digital artwork are: Value Contrast, Intensity Contrast, Hue Contrast, Temperature contrast, Complementary contrast, and Quantity contrast. You will read and learn about simultaneous, successive and mixed contrast. This unit has 6 unique assignments.

Value Contrast
Color Key: High Key & Low Key

Value Contrast
In full-contrast artwork the entire range of values are represented. The artwork uses whites, mid tones and dark values. Usually the midrange values contain the details of the artwork. The light values and dark values provide contrast and impact.

Color Key-

High key colors are the lighter colors at the light end of the value scale. This type of artwork is uplifting and usually has an upbeat feeling.
High Key Image

Low key colors are the opposite, consisting of the middle to dark values on the color scale. The low intensity colors create artwork of a more serious mood.
Head of a Woman - Vincent Van Gogh

Colorize this line art painting using full contrast. All of the ranges of value must be present from white values, to mid tones and dark values.


Pour colors into the voids using the paint bucket tool and then removed any linear elements of the composition.

Intensity Contrast

You can create an intensity contrast in your artwork by placing a pure, bright color within areas of grayer, low-intensity color. The neutral nature of the gray color will provide a striking contrast for the pure hue.

Intensity Contrast Chart


Intensity Contrast Exercise:
Examine the chart above.
Which effect fob you this is stronger?

A pure hue against the same hue in a lower intensity like the center column
A pure hue against a complementary low intensity background like the 3rd column?

Create artwork using intensity contrast.
Colorize the figures in the foreground with pure hues.
Remove the Drop Shadow from the figures.
Create your own drop shadow that tapers off into transparency.

Paint low intensity gradient colors in the background to create intensity contrast.

Hue Contrast

One way to create a powerful contrast is to place two intense hues side by side. Use pure bright colors and see the stark contrast. Think of your childhood crayon coloring box of 8 colors. Vibrant colors emerge when you juxtapose complimentary colors or strong value contrasts.

In Adobe Illustrator create artwork that uses hue contrast:

Create squares, oval, circles, and stars of pure, bright colors.
Arrange different combinations of the squares.
Start with color combinations and then provide background squares of another color and size.
Notice how the colors react to one another.
Use flat colored shapes (no gradients or blends)

You goal is to produce a vibrant composition using hue contrasts.


Temperature Contrast

Color Temperature:
A measurement taken in Kelvin degrees of colored light

Warm and cool temperature color contrast provides movement in forms and throughout the space of the artwork. Warm colors appear to advance and cool colors appear to recede. This creates a type of push and pull between the colors.

When a cool color overlaps a warmer color, the warmer color seems to push trough the cooler one. When cool colors are in the background the background recedes and gives a type of atmospheric perspective.

Warm colors: Red, red-orange, orange, yellow orange and yellow
Cool colors: Blue, blue-green, green, violet

Warm-Cool:  One of J. Itten’s seven color contrasts. The relative quality of a given hue as it is located nearer to or further from the extreme color temperature polarities on the color wheel of Red-Orange (warmest) to Blue-Green (coolest). Visible hues possess this quality at all levels of chroma and value.

Create a two images using temperature contrast based on the same line art. Reverse the temperatures to create an ambiguous space.

Paint your line art using warm colors in the foreground and cool colors in the background.

In the second painting, reverse the temperature of the foreground and background colors.

Combine both paintings into a single photoshop document.
Print as a pdf in the network Homework folder to turn in


Complementary Contrast

Complements, Complementary Colors:
Colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Combined additively they complete each other; placed adjacently, they heighten or intensify each other. The side by side placement can occur in high or low intensity. Compliments enhance each other. In context of the artwork, they require one another for balance.

Think of your favorite sports team Jersey. I like the Los Angeles Lakers use of complementary colors for their logo and jerseys. The yellow color vibrates next to the violet color. This happens physiologically in the rods and cones of your eyes.

Use complimentary color contrast to create the most powerful contrast.

Vincent Van Gogh used complimentary colors extensively in his artwork.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet      Still Life: Basket of Apples     Wheat Fields with Crows

Paint the Van Gogh drawing using contrasting complimentary colors.
Download this photo to colorize.

Enclosed Field behind Saint-Paul Hospital: Rising Sun
by Vincent Van Gogh Line Art

Here are some reference photos

A meadow in the mountains:Le Mas de Saint-Paul

Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon

The Sower

Quantity Contrast

Complementary colors can balance each other. One of Joseph Ittens theories is using the correct ration of one complement to its counterpart. This ratio is changing, but as a rule he determined that this ratio would bring an appropriate balance.

Yellow- 3 parts Violet- 1 Part
Orange - One part Blue - 2 Parts
Red - 1 Part Green - 1 Part

Another way to bring about contrast is to add a bright color to one object in a black and white photograph. This is the assignment that you will complete for the Quantity contrast exercise.

Choose a color or grayscale photograph that intrigues you. The grayscale photograph that you choose should be a full-contrast artwork the entire range of values are represented. (Please refer to Value Contrast at the top of this page)

Desaturate the photograph if in color.

In the grayscale photograph, choose one object to colorize with bright color.

The isolated colored object must become symbolic of a message that the viewer can scummier.

Name the Piece. Use the type tool to add the name to the image in a discreet manner. The name should NOT become the focal point!

Write a three paragraph summary of your composition. Use full sentences to answer the follow questions.

Paragraph 1:
Why did you choose the image to desaturate? What areas of value contrast attracted you?

Paragraph 2:
What object did you choose to colorize and why?
What bright color did you choose to use for the form?
How does that hue promote the symbolism of the piece?
Was this object a focal point of the photograph BEFORE you chose to colorize it?

Paragraph 3:
What did your name the piece and how does the name add to the intrigue of the symbolism?


Samples:     One              Two           Three

Simultaneous, Successive and Mixed Contrast

Color Theory of Cheveul
M. E. Chevreul stated the Law of Simultaneous Contrast in this way:
"In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the height of their tone."

Chevreul also identified three situations in which this contrast could be observed:

Simultaneous Contrast, viewed between two colors placed side by side

Successive Contrast
, also known by the term "negative afterimages"

Mixed Contrast
, where two colors are seen one immediately after the other such that the afterimage of the first is mixed with the second. Read More>>>


Simultaneous Contrast
The optical effect in which colors are influenced or altered in apparent hue, and/or value, and/or chroma by adjacent colors, each imparting to its neighbor something of its own complementary hue and/or opposite value and/or chroma.

When your eye is exposed to intense color it adjusts by seeing the color's complement simultaneously. The eye seems to need the complement for relief. In simultaneous contrast, adjacent colors produce complements at the edges where two color meet. For example, a bright red passage next to yellow may have a barely perceptible greenish bloom around the edges that affects the yellow, making it seem cooler. You can anticipate this and overcome the effect by using a warmer yellow to begin with.

Vanishing Boundaries: This is a term that Josef Albers applied to the phenomenon observed when two different solid color areas of exactly the same value are placed adjacent to each other. The hard edge separating the two seems to soften or disappear.

Vibrating Boundaries: This is a term that Josef Albers applied to the phenomenon observed when two different solid color areas, usually near complements of near equal value, are placed adjacent to each other creating a very noticeable optical fluttering effect. Clashing colors.

Successive Contrast
Afterimage: An afterimage is an image that stays with you even after you have stopped looking at something.

View the Birds and bird cage

Follow the instructions to see the flag's after image

If you look at a second color, the complementary afterimage blends in Mixed Contrast, projected onto the color like a glaze. So, as you work, rest your eyes occasionally for more accurate color impressions and adjust your colors, if necessary, to compensate for mixed contrast.

Reveal more of the Photoshop or Illustrator artboard and gaze at the neutral gray.


Mixed or Optical Color Mixing:
 Color perception that results from the combination of adjacent color areas by the eye/brain. Pointillism is an example. Also called Retinal Mixing or Partitive Color.

Lots of Dots: Pointillist Paintings and Optical Mixing
Kavita Dorai
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh USA

What is Pointillism?
If you like polka dots, you will love pointillism. Pointillism is a style of art. Artists who paint in this style use thousands of tiny dots to create their paintings. Pointillist artists have a lot of patience.
Pointillists used confetti-size dots on their canvases. These dots do a strange thing when you look at them from far away. Different color dots blend together to create new colors. They also look like they shimmer. This is because the dots play a trick on your eyes. This trick is called "optical mixing." The artists who used dots felt that optical mixing made their pictures look brighter. It was like a reward for all of their patience.
The pointillist artists used dots in the three primary colors. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. In order to create a secondary color, the artist put dots in two primary colors next to each other. The secondary colors are green, purple, and orange. For example, to create green, the artists placed yellow and blue dots close together. To make orange, the artists used red and yellow dots, and to create purple, the artists used red and blue dots. Pointillism is scientific. The artists had to think a lot about what they were doing.

Seurat’s masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, took two years to complete. The painting is approximately 2 by 3 meters
(6 ft 10 in x 10 ft 1 in) in size. Today, it hangs in the Art Institute in Chicago. 

Click here to see the larger photo of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grando Jatte

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte


“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science.”— Georges Seurat



The seven visual effects described by Johannes Itten: Hue, Value, Chroma, Warm-Cool, Complementary, Simultaneous and Extension. These color contrasts are described at length in his book, The Art of Color.

Josef Albers and Johannes Itten
The Bauhaus, a progressive art school in Germany that sought to redefine art education, is the major source of development in color theory. There, master Johannes Itten and one of his students, Joseph Albers began a indepth study of color theory. T

Wassily Kandinsky