The Importance of Contrast in 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 learned 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 halftones 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, halftones 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 the 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 Panasonic 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 mirror

Traditionally 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. How to paint a black & white portrait in oils – Part 1
2. Time-lapse grisaille portrait video

This Post Has 61 Comments

  1. Sian Watts

    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?

    1. Will Kemp

      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.

      1. Elly Field

        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!

        1. Will Kemp

          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!


  2. joan leblanc

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

    1. Will Kemp

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

  3. joan leblanc

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      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.

      1. joan

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

        1. Will Kemp

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

  4. Monica

    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’?

    1. Will Kemp

      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!

      1. Monica

        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.

        1. Will Kemp

          Your Welcome Monica, hope the value study helps,

  5. francis

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      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!


  6. Bas Juijn

    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.


    1. Will Kemp

      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,

  7. ann

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Ann,

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



  8. Bindu Lall

    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,


    1. Will Kemp

      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.


  9. xristos

    special thenks from greece

  10. Terry Bunton.

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      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.



  11. Linda Judd

    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?

    1. Will Kemp

      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,

      1. Linda Judd

        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.

        1. Will Kemp

          The lessons will still be available Linda.


  12. Komal Khadtale

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

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Komal, pleased you found it helpful.

  13. Tamara Walus

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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,

  14. Menchie

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

    1. Will Kemp

      Really pleased they have been helping you Menchie,

  15. Deb

    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?

    1. Will Kemp

      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.

  16. Louise

    I have just discovered your website! I am a beginner painter. I am attempting to paint a scene taken at a train station where shadows are a big influence in the image. I am wondering how to approach painting them? Should I paint them in the color that appears (dark) or in the color that portion of the image might be and then apply a wash?

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Louise, I would start with the darks and paint all the dark shapes as if they were one shape. So squint our eyes at the scene and notice where the simple blacks of darks are. Start with these and the painting will be much more cohesive.
      Hope this helps,


  17. Beth Hughes

    Hi Will, I like so many others love your website and your approach to sharing your knowledge. I have the most problem with highlights. I either leave them out or find that I use too many in an effort to make the painting pop. Any suggestions?
    Thank you

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Beth, pleased you’ve been enjoying the website, with highlights you can often use more than you think, especially if you keep then small. If you look at this article and have a scroll down to the highlights sections on the eyes and look at the ‘Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest’ you’ll see how up close van Dyck has used lots of little highlights, but when viewed from a distance we don’t notice as much but the eyes have a sparkle and contrast.
      Hope this helps,


  18. Tamara Walus

    Hi Will
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I wonder if you could help me. I have started to paint a portrait in acrylics. After a few layers of flesh tones the paint is not sticking to the canvas. Is there anything that could be done to regain the grip?

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Tamara, it can only really happen if the paint has been diluted too much with water and the paint surface that it’s trying to be painted onto is super shiny. What you can do is lay down a thin layer of acrylic glazing liquid gloss and then add the paint ontop of that, or just use the glazing liquid gloss for your paint application when working in thinner layers.

      Hope this helps,


  19. Judy

    Dear Will,
    I recently did a portrait drawing course and am looking forward to doing your portrait painting course. A burning question though, I understand that drawing and painting need different approaches. Drawing deals with line and shading but painting is about areas, colour fields, or what would you say it is about? I don’t want to draw with my brush. I feel confident that your painting course will guide me step by step but I want to approach the two mediums in the right way. I did bamboo pen, brush and ink paintings as part of the drawing course and came unstuck at first because I hadn’t appreciated the distinction. Please would you perhaps do a post on making the transition from drawing to painting and the right approach to rendering colour areas correctly without just filling in lines or painting by numbers.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Judy, nice to hear from you, to answer your question:

      ‘Drawing deals with line and shading but painting is about areas, colour fields, or what would you say it is about? I don’t want to draw with my brush.’

      Personally, I opt for a painting is drawing with a brush, just with the added complication of colour mixing. The best transition between pencil drawing and paint is to use charcoal and chalks. You can learn so much about hard and soft edges, turning the form, judging values of tone correctly etc. This will help to move away from the feeling of objects being outlined and then filled in and more into the importance of seeing objects as blocks of tonal mass.

      Hope this helps,


      1. Judy

        Thanks Will!

  20. Louise L.

    Thanks so much for your help! I have been teaching myself to paint in acrylic using my own photos. So far it’s been working. Before my career started I enjoyed photography as a hobby and have taken some memorable vacation photos. I also worked part time in photo retouch and found that was a great way to train in mixing color (to match). Now I use that skill to work on paintings. But I often find myself enriching the tone by painting over a particular color more than once. Is this a good approach? I’ve been pleased to find your suggestions very helpful.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Louise, so pleased you’ve been enjoying the website, yes, you can enrich a colour by glazing a thin version of the same colour ontop, it’s a good approach for creating more vivid passages in a painting without having to repaint the whole section.

  21. Micki Petrocelli

    Hi Will. Your tutorials are great and I have done my first landscape painting following ALL the rules. I am using the 7 basic principles as my quide thru learning landscapes following the “You might also Like” suggestions. I am on Principle 2 now and there are no suggestions for a landscape so I will go on to 3. I have a Bachelors in Art focusing on only Oils from 20 years ago and owning a photo store for 13 years and having to work left me without doing art everyday for years. So I realized that after all these years that I NEED the landscape for inspiration. My goal is to paint similarly to Lesley Birch who also lives in the UK. She calls her style semi-abstract landscape. Right now I will learn acrylics.
    Shall I go thru the 7 BASIC PRINCIPLES, painting when suggested or do the “The Art of Acrylics course simultaneously? I just need a little help navigating through the basics again before setting out on my own. Thank you for your great spirit and addition to the world of making art.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Micki, great to hear from you, you can work through the free lessons and the beginners acrylic course at the same time, that would give you the best overview to the classical painting techniques I use throughout the lessons.
      Hope this helps,


  22. Irit Luria

    Dear Will,

    I so enjoy your website and benefit from the extensive amount of information on it. Thanks to you, I am back to doing paintings. I have perused the information about varnishing acrylic paintings. Varnish questions: Is a painting with thin coats of paint that seem dry after 5 hours dry enough for varnish? Can an acrylic painting on canvas continue to dry through the back of the canvas after having been varnished?

    You are a treasure by being both a highly talented, skilled artist and an equally talented, skilled instructor, clearly with a strong desire to help. Many, many thanks to you!

    Irit Luria

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Irit, if it’s in very thin coats you could just about get away with it, I tend to wait for 24hrs.

      1. Irit Luria

        Yes, waiting at least 24 hours is wise. I was not aware of this, and became to eager to varnish and get it ready to bring to my son & his family as a gift. Thank you so much for your input. I am still not sure about the value of varnishing. I used a permanent, not removable varnish (Liquitex professional). Will this type of varnish not be removable even with an isolation coat? Which type do you recommend?

        Thank you so much, Irit

          1. Irit Luria

            Thank you so much for your reply, the information that you share and your support are both valuable and helpful.

            Best regards, Irit

          2. Will Kemp

            My pleasure Irit.

  23. Andrew Moore

    Thanks Will for loading this article on your website. Some very important tips here too. I always learn alot from your website, courses and videos.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks so much Andrew.

  24. Becky

    From a zoom Mother’s Day “paint by number” party to life during a pandemic, I’ve fallen in love with painting and sketching. Thank you for your amazing, easy to follow, beginning video’s. You’ve made life in semi-isolation a lot more tolerable.

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s great to hear Becky, so pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons.

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