The Importance of Contrast in Painting

by Will Kemp

in drawing,oil painting

contrast in painting

Contrast is really important when you’re starting to learn how to paint.

A good knowledge of contrast in drawing helps significantly because you will have learnt the value of light and dark.

If you are coming from a non-drawing background, you will have to be more aware that to make a dramatic painting “contrast is king”, rather than trying to add a bright colour to lift the painting…

Pencil vs paint

Contrast is somehow clearer to understand in drawing because you have a white piece of paper and a dark pencil, It feels natural.

If you transfer the same level of contrast to painting it can seem daunting and the areas of dark can look too heavy. However, it’s very important to have a range of contrast in your paintings from black to white to truly show off the colours.

It as a misconception to think that adding black to a painting will make it dark and dull, in fact it is essential to create a vivid painting.

Tone can be deceptive

In the Degas above (an unfinished oil painting which is great to be able to understand his painting technique) you can see his use of the coloured ground.

He then has added the darkest dark and lightest light to give the painting a tonal scale to work within.

In the coloured version your eyes are drawn to the face and the tension in the neck created by the composition. In the black and white version your eyes are drawn towards how dark the back of the dancer is. This isn’t as apparent in the colour version because our brains have a ‘shadow blindness’ when viewing images.

A beginner has the tendency to leave dark areas lighter as your logical brain tells you “it’s going to be too dark.”

The 3 tone masses

Most objects can be reduced broadly into 3 tone masses, the lights, the half tones and the shadows.
And learning the habit of reducing things to the three simple tones is a fantastic foundation to base your drawings and painting on.

At the beginning of a painting the main job is to establish an overview of the subjects 3 areas of tone without getting caught up in the detail, this is easier said than done and takes great practice

Pro tip: When you squint your eyes you simplify large areas making it easier to see which areas fall into light, half tones and shadows.

Toned Ground

When you have the toned ground it acts as your mid tone.The white is your brightest light and burnt umber can act as the dark.
This is true in landscape and portrait painting, I know I keep on going on about a toned ground but it is so important to your painting success.

Pro tip: Using burnt umber as your darkest dark is a great way to paint because you will be bolder with your brush, safe in the knowledge that if you need to go darker, black can always save you.

How your camera can teach you an easy trick for seeing tone

It’s hard to judge the tone of your painting when you first start but if you have a digital camera you’re in luck. Often in the menu settings there is an option to adjust the viewfinder to black and white. (I know this is true in panasonics but I can’t vouch for other brands)

This can be invaluable in looking at the comparison in colour tone between your subject and your painting. If you can’t convert to black and white in camera then just take your shots and adjust on your computer.

  1. Take a photograph of your painting with the camera settings to black and white.
  2. Take a photograph of your subject with exactly the same viewpoint you’ve done your painting from, also in black and white.
  3. On the camera flick between the two images on your viewfinder, whatever jumps out needs attention.
  4. This can also be helpful to see any drawing mistakes also.

Traditional Methods

claude mirrorTraditionally painters used to use whatever means they could to help them see a colour image in black and white. Most famously the Claude glass, created by 17th Century landscape painter; Claude Lorrain. It was a convex piece of black glass that you looked into and saw the reflection of the subject and your painting in the glass. The black helps to take away the distraction of colour and focus on the tonal values in the piece.

In oil painting  you will sometimes hear the term ‘grisaille‘, meaning a painting done entirely in shades of grey. It’s the oil equivalent of the tonal drawing. A strong tonal drawing almost always leads to a strong painting.
So never underestimate the lessons you will learn from value. You can see a demonstration on painting a grisaille portrait here.

Slowly Does It!

Essentially, painting is drawing apart from the added confusion of mixing colour.

This is why I adhere to the method of learning to paint by slowly introducing colours so you can get to grips with the handling and feel of a brush, palette and paint before having to worry about the extra problems of trying to match colours.

You can go straight into mixing with full colour but you would have to rely heavily on a process of matching colour swatches to the subject rather than developing an artists eye.

You might also like:
1. Classical black & white Oil portrait course
2. How to paint a black & white portrait in oils – Part 1
3. Time-lapse grisaille portrait video

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Sian Watts July 28, 2011

Dear Will – I am a member of the Goostrey Art Club and this is the first time I have been on your website – I totally love it! I am fascinated by old paintings techniques/composition, having studied 17th century dutch paintings as part of my art A level (many years ago), and would love to get back to a more practical understanding of art techniques. Do you run various courses in Congleton?


Will Kemp July 28, 2011

Hi Sian,
Glad to hear you are enjoying the website, I will be starting some new courses in Congleton in September. Initially they will be ‘Will’s Art Surgery’ where you can bring along paintings you have been working on for critiques and demonstrations on how to bring them to the next level. I will also be running some ‘Art Taster courses’. I will email details over to you.


Elly Field January 28, 2014

Hi Will

Firstly can I just say how much I appreciate all the amazing knowledge you are sharing with us aspiring artists – I am working my way through everything you have here and soaking it up like a sponge! I was very excited when I saw that you have run classes in Congleton which is not too far from me and wondered if you still did them? Also when reading your article about ‘reasons you can’t draw’ I got to thinking about artists using alcohol etc to get themselves in the flow. I was wondering if meditation could prove a good way to chill yourself out enough to be more in the flow….I might experiment!


Will Kemp January 28, 2014

Hi Elly, so pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons on the website. I haven’t got any live classes planned at the moment but any that I run in the future I’ll add a note on the blog. Yes, Van Gogh was keen on Absinthe and Jackson Pollock was partial to Bourbon to get himself into the artistic flow so definitely a good excuse to experiment!



joan leblanc November 4, 2011

love your site and great personality by the way. trying hard but still not there with my acrylics. hope to see more from you.


Will Kemp November 4, 2011

Hi Joan,
Thanks very much, hope the site is helping you out. What are you finding hardest with the Acrylics?


joan leblanc November 4, 2011

There is so much I don’t know where to start. I am really discouraged today.I am using liquitex acrylic.I don’t understand the light spectrum and color usage that well.I have studied the color wheel.Right now I am trying figure out where to get a copy of a large picture with a lazer printer,they only do small 8×10. I like to add different colors in a painting but not sure if it is the right color to put there.


Will Kemp November 4, 2011

Hi Joan,
We all have down days with painting!! It sounds like you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself to understand everything all at once. When learning to paint I always recommend starting simply with a limited palette, sometimes less can be more!
Don’t stop experimenting and just stick to 3 colours and see what you can do with those and all the mixes in between, you’ll have less chance of creating ” jarring” colour combinations this way.
Just remember, Picasso produced over 50,000 pieces of art over his lifetime, not all of them were masterpieces, but he kept going year after year.
The process is just as important as the end result.


joan January 17, 2012

thank you. I think I am getting a little better. people like you help a lot.


Will Kemp January 17, 2012

Hi Joan,
Brilliant! glad your paintings are going well.


Monica November 8, 2011

Hi Will – a friend sent me the link to this website and I love it. I have been learning to paint in oils for the last year but it is slow going. I have an artist friend who is mentoring me but I only get to see her about twice a year as she lives in France. My biggest challenge is value. She is always telling me I dont have enough contrast. I try to keep this in mind but still seem to play it safe. Do you think I should try to do some black and white paintings? Also could you tell me exactly what is meant by ‘halftone’?


Will Kemp November 8, 2011

Hi Monica, Thanks for the kind words, and thanks to your friend!
Value is one of the hardest things to crack when painting so don’t be discouraged.
Black and white paintings are very useful in painting. In Florence Academies students paint in black and white for at least 1 year solid, before adding colour to the palette. This is a bit too much though!
What is a halftone?
If we look at a subject and try to divide the general tones into three, the lights, the halftones and the shadows. The ‘halftones’ is just a way of saying the midtones, or the areas of tone that are part of the lights, but between the light and the shadow.
The midtones can often be the stumbling block because we have a natural tendency to paint them too dark, thus ruining the effect of form. It is a real balancing act to get those subtle midtones right and your shadows dark enough to add drama.
Pro tip: Premix a ‘colour string’ of black (ivory black) and white (titanium white) into 9 values. Then just choose 3 for the darks, 3 for the midtones and 3 for the light. And never mix the groups. Only use the ones you’ve chosen.
Hope this helps, and keep painting!


Monica November 8, 2011

Thanks Will – I love colour so this is going to be a challenge but I think it will be useful to do the 9 value black to white study. I will be keeping an eye on the website and let know how it goes. I really appreciate that you take the time to do this.


Will Kemp November 9, 2011

Your Welcome Monica, hope the value study helps,


francis April 13, 2012

Hi Will,
Indeed, this approach of getting the basic gives me more confidence as a ” pencil artist” to seriously go for some facinating oil painting.The similarity in the power of tonal value in drawing if confidently applied to painting can be considered an advantage in the concept of contrast, if l’m right.

I’m contemplating doing some painting only in black, white & grey what do you think?

I appreciate your generousity on some helpful hints you shared.

Bless you!


Also,l appreciate your generousity for covering the use of coloured ground.


Will Kemp April 13, 2012

Hi Francis,

Great the post has inspired you to try painting, often the leap from pencil to paint can seem a scary one.

Yes, you’re right, the similarity in tonal drawings applied to painting can make a big difference in your work.
I’ve just started a series of posts working with black and white portraits, you might be interested in them.

I definitely think working in black and white is a great way to understand the key principles in learning how to paint, so go for it!



Bas Juijn June 3, 2012

Hello Will,

I much appreciate your website and your willingness to help others with their painting. I came from a drawing background, than to pastels, then to oils. I wonder how to choose the colour for the coloured ground in oils. Can you give me a little advice? And when going from grisaille to colour, what would be a good way to do it?

Cheers and thanks again for your site.



Will Kemp June 3, 2012

Hello Bas,

Thanks for your kind comment, great that the website has been helping. To answer your questions:

How to choose the colour for the coloured ground in oils?

It can vary depending on the effect you are after. For example, if you want a dark, moody Rembrandt style painting I would start with quite a dark burnt umber coloured ground. As the local ‘field colour’ is a brown. However, if you wanted to paint a lighter, warmer more impressionistic feel landscape a light naples yellow coloured ground would be lovely because it would give the clouds a glow and the whole picture a feeling of warmth.

So think about the general feel and mood you want to acheive from your painting and work from that starting point.

When going from grisaille to colour, what would be a good way to do it?

A very simple way to go is to try using just one colour and white, so rather than black and white, maybe ultramarine blue and white. I will be doing a post on this in the next few weeks.

Hope this helps,


ann June 30, 2012

Hello Will
What a lovely informative engaging website. well done!
I liked what you wrote about contrast, its a tricky one. The squinting tip is very useful, unless you care about looking like you’ve lost your glasses!
Two artists I especially like, who both work with limited colour palattes that really show how contrast works, are Romaine Brooks, and Paul Henry.
Hope you like them.
Thanks and best wishes


Will Kemp July 2, 2012

Hi Ann,

Thank you for your lovely comments, contrast can be so important and I think the Romaine Brooks portrait illustrates it perfectly.




Bindu Lall July 17, 2013

Dear Will,

I am writing from New Delhi, India. I am your typical hobby artist (aspiring to be professional). I have attended no art classes and have had little time/opportunity to indulge in what should have been my main pursuit. Work and life got in the way, though I am aware that many would say that these are just sorry excuses. ANYWAY, now I have time and want to get back to art full force. I always fear starting a new painting because I think I am going to mess it up, or I truly don’t know what I want it to look like at the end.

I have studied so many sites where artists have shared their knowledge but when I came upon yours I felt I had to look no further to get my inspiration and lessons. Thank you so much for so generously sharing your knowledge and helping people pursue art.

I am (happily) overwhelmed by your extensive site explaining just about everything, clearly and simply. No doubt I will write again asking questions as I go along and ‘create’.

Thanks again,



Will Kemp July 17, 2013

Hi Bindu,
Thanks for your lovely comment, so pleased you’re finding the articles and tutorials helpful in your return to painting, enjoy exploring the site.



xristos December 22, 2013

special thenks from greece


Will Kemp December 22, 2013

Thanks xristos


Terry Bunton. March 7, 2014

I love your advice, I am just urnig pro after several years.As an ex trapeze artist I specialize in historical circus work. The ground colour of burnt umber is great for low key night time scenes of moody skies etc. Under a reddish or bluish big top (as they often are) I was thinking, could the ground colour reflect the colours that will be used in this way ie a pale pinkish tone for a red tent interior etc. If I paint a particular artist like say a showgirl in full bright yellow and white headress and costume on a very dark ground I use a watereddown ultramarine for the initial grisaille. The finish with dark blue behind a performr has a dramatic effect. Am I on the right lines of thinking. By the wy thank you for all your advice. I stopped searching other sites, as your advice, especially less is more, rang so true and really does work.


Will Kemp March 7, 2014

Hi Terry,

Yes, this would work, with coloured grounds you’re trying to peel back the layers of your painting before you begin and they can be used for both background and foreground elements within the finished piece.

Pleased you’ve been finding the articles of interest.




Linda Judd June 14, 2014

Value – Definition – How dark and Light the Color is

Getting confused with the word Tone

3 Tone Masses is the breakdown of the Value Scale?


Will Kemp June 14, 2014

Hi Linda,

Nice to hear from you, ‘tone’ and ‘value’ are different ways of saying the same thing. You could also say: ’3 value masses is the breakdown of the tonal scale’ but you’ll most commonly find artist referring to a ‘value scale’ and a ‘tonal mass’

Hope this helps,


Linda Judd June 16, 2014

Thank you for your quick reply.

Question. I am presently working on portrait in oils Steps 1-5

How much time do I have for study. I need access to your steps online for the next week or two.

Please advise.


Will Kemp June 18, 2014

The lessons will still be available Linda.



Komal Khadtale July 1, 2014

Hello Will your tips for creating a composition are surely helpful for me,i would love to hear some more tricks.
Thank you.


Will Kemp July 3, 2014

Thanks Komal, pleased you found it helpful.


Tamara Walus August 22, 2014

Thank you so much for all the information that you are willing to share with the world. Your website is the most informative I could find on the web.
I have just started to learn painting with acrylics. Your tutorials are excellent.
I have a question that I hope you could help me to answer. How do I select a colour for a Toned Ground for a painting? Should it be a complementary colour to the item in the focus of the painting?
Take care. Tamara


Will Kemp August 22, 2014

Hi Tamara, thanks for your kind comments on the website, the toned ground colour depends (and varies) on the effect you’re trying to achieve. If you think of the final mood of the painting you want and then go from there.

A good exercise to do it make lots of small tester pieces of card with different colours grounds on and then paint the same painting over the top. It will give you a quick indication of the style of ground colour you like the best.
Hope this helps,


Menchie September 28, 2014

Hi Will, the tutorials are wonderful! I’m teaching acrylic painting, and your expertise is sooo helpful. I’m learning a lot, thank you!


Will Kemp September 28, 2014

Really pleased they have been helping you Menchie,


Deb April 13, 2015

Will, your videos are so helpful. As a novice painter in acrylics, I’ve just taken a black and white photo of the white horse I was painting and realised why it looks flat. The dark cream / yellow ochre tones I’ve used for the shadows on her coat do not contract sufficiently enough with the white areas. I’m not quite sure which colour to change the shadows to, as the mane, tail and nose area are black to grey. (The original photo looks an all white coat, but there is a clear contrast if changed to a B&W image). Any suggestions?


Will Kemp April 14, 2015

Hi Deb, pleased you’ve been finding the videos helpful, if you start with a dark grey or brown such as burnt umber it will give you a good base to start from.


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