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Principles of Design





Contrast is the juxtaposition of opposing elements
  • Complementary Colors (red/green, yellow/violet)
  • Different Directions (horizontal/vertical)
  • Tonal Difference (black/white)
  • Textural Difference (rough/smooth)
  • Linear Contrast (thin and straight/heavy and curved)

Focusing Contrast

The maximum contrast in a work of art is usually located at the center of interest. Too much contrast scattered throughout a painting can destroy unity and make a work difficult to look at. Unless a feeling of chaos and confusion are sought, it is a good idea to carefully consider where to place areas of maximum contrast.

In “Landscape With Animals”, Franz Marc scatters contrast in color, tone, shape, size and direction, loosely throughout the painting to achieve an animated, chaotic atmosphere.

Franz Marc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Franz Marc (1880-1916) “Landscape With Animals” (1913)

Franz Marc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Franz Marc (1880-1916) “The Large Blue Horses” (1911)

In “The Large Blue Horses”, he compresses the tonal difference, keeps the shapes more in harmony and subdues the color contrast to create a painting with a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere.


Contrast can amplify some design elements. By placing the two shapes below side by side the difference in scale makes the large shape appear larger and the small shape appear smaller.

Geometric and Organic Shapes © John Lovett

The large shape makes the small shape appear smaller and the small shape makes the large shape appear larger.

Contrast in scale was a common technique in early 19th century landscapes. The tiny figures at the foot of the monument in David Roberts painting, “Ruined Mosques in the Desert West of the Citadel”,  make the monuments appear huge and spectacular.

David Roberts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Roberts (1796-1864) “Ruined Mosques in the Desert West of the Citadel” (1838)


Contrast is the principle that makes things stand out. Lack of contrast is the basis for simple camouflage. Countershading, where areas naturally in shadow are made lighter and areas in full light are made darker, is a more sophisticated form of camouflage designed to reduce contrast and visually flatten an object. Countershading was developed by the American artist Abbot Thayer (1) prior to WWI.

Small Brown Frog showing No Contrast   © John Lovett

Without contrast in tone, color, shape, texture and size, this small frog is almost invisible in its environment.

The pale belly and dark green back on this little frog is an example of countershading in nature. Seen from above he blends with the foliage he hides in. Seen from below, in the water, his pale belly makes him less visible against the light sky.

Green Frog showing countershading © John Lovett

Conceptual contrast

Conceptual contrast gives more impact to polarised elements. The cracked, crumbling walls of this ancient building appear even more primitive under the shadow of these modern satellite dishes.

Conceptual Contrast
shape complexity preferrence

Conceptual contrast – opposing elements amplify each others individual character

Cement Trucks are usually big, heavy and ugly. When they are painted pink, a color traditionally associated with feminine softness, the conceptual contrast brings about a double take as our brains struggle to link the opposing concepts.

Conceptual contrast – opposing elements generate confusion

Color Contrast

Maximum color contrast exists between saturated, complementary colors (those opposite one another on the color wheel). Complementary compound colors (those containing a mixture of all three primaries) will not exhibit the same level of contrast.

Color Wheel showing color contrast

This color wheel shows the saturated colors that give maximum color contrast between complementaries and, between Yellow and Violet, compound complementaries that yield less color contrast.

These two reds are identical but when surrounded by its complementary, the second red appears more intense.

Complementary color contrast

Complementary color contrast intensifies adjacent opposites


Contrast is the design principle we can use to create maximum impact. Strong tonal contrast is our most powerful tool when it comes to focusing attention.

(1) Behrens, Roy (27 February 2009). “Revisiting Abbott Thayer: non-scientific reflections about camouflage in art, war and zoology”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B – Biology (Royal Society Publishing) 364 (1516): 497–501

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