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Contrast

I’d have to give it more thought, but it could well be that “contrast” is the major culprit in spreading poor knowledge about art, other than poor – or no – knowledge of techniques.

That would be contrast in colour. And contrast in tone.

Thwacking a painting with a strikingly contrasting colour dramatically alters the painting and can dramatically alter the drama: the visual impact. Many modern abstracts rely on severe contrast of colour for them to strike the eye and for the un-beknowing viewer to consider it art. Often, strong contrast alone can pull this off. Terrific if there’s more involved, but unfortunately colour contrast alone is driving the painting.

Contrast in tone has a long tradition deep into art history. Differently, here often we find paintings that vary little in colour: very little contrast and certainly colour contrast is absent in mind when viewing them. However, you’ll certainly find these paintings often (most often? always?) have deep darks and areas of bright light.

These historical paintings still carry their effect when reproduced in lithographs or books in black and white. Strip away colour from the modern work relying on colour contrast – turn it into a black and white image – and you may see very little in it at all.

Contrast in tone can sustain an entire artist’s career. When I first started painting I knew an established artist who has spent a lifetime selling works that impact the eye, gain approval, invoke accolade from a local gallery visitor, all because of tonal contrast. Heavy darks against strong lights. Instant impact; instant drama.

But that’s largely what they are: sugar hits. After the impact…nothing.

Here’s a painting I did some while ago; a theme I particularly like:

Storm Surge

Somewhat abstract, it’s a painting of raging swells assaulting a beach, strong winds belting the dune foliage (middle left) – an occasion when nature is unleashed wildly and the air itself is indistinguishable from the sea, being shot through with hurtling rain and thrown sea water. At least, that’s the idea. It’s a creative dream subject.

However, there’s not that much contrast in tone for most of the work, nor does it rely on contrast in colour.

Here it is in black and white:

Storm Surge with colour removed – B & W

It doesn’t rely on juxtaposing or including extreme darks along with lighter lights than shown here. In other words, the contrast is at the lower end of the “light” scale and doesn’t vary hugely.

Yet the drama remains. So too, the visual impact.

To explore the theme further would involve also lessening the contrast in both colour and tone. However, the drama and visual impact would have to remain. Only knowing techniques can achieve that.

It’s a theme I wish I had another lifetime to explore, entirely on its own.

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