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