Tag Archives: contrast

Design Principle – Contrast

Contrast image

Contrast is one of my favorite Design Principles because it is completely accessible and so very dynamic. In school you will recall being asked to “compare and contrast” two ideas or opinions. We have an intuitive understanding of contrast as opposites, when we see it. In politics, there is no debate without contrasting opinions. In life, change is contrast happening over time.

In designing, the idea is to use the Principles intentionally to change and effect the Elements of Design. Contrast is all about examining or depicting difference. Contrasts, especially those that are unexpected, create vibrancy, draw attention to the subject. Visual contrast creates interest and contributes to a sense of movement or balance (another Design Principle). Contrast defines edges. Uniformity is the absence of contrast. Incongruity is unexpected contrast.

Contrast does not have mean diametric opposites, however. Just like the Tonal Scale where contrast is inherent in defining it, degrees of contrast are possible. Contrast is always comparative – about the relationship between two or more values. Sometimes the degree of contrast defines a style.

One example is the 1940’s film genre Film Noir. The style is defined today by the deep contrast in tonal values of the visuals – with many deep shadows. Shadows will be cast on characters’ faces, highlighting their emotional duality and ambivalence. The audience is left with uncertainty, since every character seems to be both dark and light. The other part of Film Noir mis-en-scene will be the sense of deep shadows in the distance, much of the action taking place at night, in poorly lit cities. The visual style underscores the drama of the story, often crime dramas or mysteries, and characters’ journeys who often represent the “seamy underbelly” of society, or are engaged in some kind of deceit.

This visual style of deep shadows is known as chiaroscuro in painting, a characteristic of the High Renaissance and Baroque eras, among other periods. Painters and sculptors alike were interested in deep folds, faces looming out of dark backgrounds, and consistent looking light sources.

Shabby Chic and prim styles have an intentional lack of contrast. Blurred edges, faded prints or text, distressing and age. If it’s too white, it’s dipped in tea. If it’s too dark, it’s washed. If it’s too shiny, it’s sanded.

I’ve always been intrigued by Dazzle Painting – a high contrast method of camouflage. The key is distance. In nature high contrast often means a warning.

Dazzle painted battleships

Dazzle Camouflage obfuscates the shape

Let’s look at how contrast works with other Elements of Design.

 Color

Complimentary opposites, the colors opposite each other on the color wheel would be a Dual color scheme. Using three colors in an equilateral triangle is a Triadic scheme, while using four colors from the points of a square is Tetradic. Analogous colors have low contrast in hue, but might have high contrast when tonal values are considered.

What do you want the colors to convey? What ideas or emotions? Are you concerned with beauty and comfort, or challenging discomfort? (You see what I did there…..)

Texture

Triadic/Tetradic “texture schemes” are more interesting than just opposites. The opposite of hard is not just soft, but also spiky.

Too much of the same texture can be overwhelming. In Transformers (2007) it was sometimes tough to tell who was an Autobot and who was a Decepticon, when the two were battling. There was a lack of contrast in the bodies, and limited color palette.

Line

The properties of Line include thickness, degree of straightness or curve, and length. Line defines shape, but so does contrast; for example where two colors come together there is the suggestion of Line. However consider that a line may have blurry edges.

Shape and Space

Shapes may be geometric or organic, vary in size or complexity.

photopin.com

Mid-century Modern and Danish style of furniture employs a nice tension in the contrast between the simple shapes of the furniture and the space below and around the pieces. For example the height from the floor is an important part of the sense of airiness and definition.

Intentional Design Process – using contrast

Contrast makes things interesting.

  • Define your message – the reader/viewers takeaway – what you want them to think, see, believe or do?
  • How can contrast convey this message?

Writing with Contrast

Contrast is the foundation of much great literature. The contrast between good and evil is the most basic plotline. People say that irony is the foundation of Jane Austen’s work, but the irony is impossible without the contrasts inherent that idea.

Incongruity is the contrast between the expectation and the result. It works especially well in comedy. For example when the reaction does not match the trigger – that’s comedy. (“Nobody’s perfect.”) Interesting characters contain incongruities or apparent inconsistencies. A flawed hero is far more interesting. People sometimes behave inconsistently too. There can be a contrast between their desires or hopes and their ability to realize their potential.

Mismatches between sequential images, or between the image and the soundtrack, foreshadow events, or strengthen the message. The ominous music always cues our concern when the scene is children playing on the beach. Jolly music playing from the radio strengthens the horror of a catastrophe; lyrical music emphasizes the evil of cruelty. One famous example: Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

“A Clockwork Orange” (1971) – Stanley Kubrick

Contrasts invite value judgments – that one product is better for your needs, more suitable than another. For this reason, be cautious when considering Contrast to do with real people. Especially your kids.

 

Element of Design – Tone

Tone, sometimes called “Value” refers to where any particular hue or surface falls on the white to black scale – how much light is reflected or absorbed by the surface. It has to do with light and shadow, contrast and the effects of texture.

  • A tint is a hue with white added which creates a lighter tone or higher value.
  • A shade is a hue with black added which creates a darker tone or lower value.
  • A neutral is a hue with grey added – which also have tonal values.

If you consider how any color would look if it were filmed in black and white – an effect you can easily create today thanks to photo editing software – you can get an understanding of the tonal value of the hue. In the olden days costume and set designers in the movie studios had charts that translated colors of paint and fabric into the grayscale so that the set and costume colors could be chosen accordingly – varying by which color process the studio would employ. Red often reads very dark – hence the black lipped appearance of all those wonderful classic film actresses.

Scientist and actress, Hedy Lamarr in The Conspirators (1944)

Scientist and actress, Hedy Lamarr in The Conspirators (1944)

A tonal scheme with a great deal of value difference from the darkest to the lightest (regardless of color) is called a “Major” scheme. One with little difference is called a “Minor” scheme. Where the majority of the values are light that is a “High” scheme, while where the majority of the values are dark, that is a “Low” scheme. There is also the idea of medium or middle.

A Low Minor scheme would tend to be heavy and somber. It is rare that there would not be even one lighter hue or tint to relieve it – especially in nature. Adding a light color to make it a Low Major scheme adds some energy, and can suggest formality. (Think dark business suits with a dark tie and a white shirt.) Film Noir is Low Major.

However a Medium Minor scheme could still be a riot of colors. In a minor scheme all the colors would be close to equal in value. Bright Christmas red and green is an example. However if you add white, gold or silver the scheme becomes a Medium Major scheme.

Case Study – The Wizard of Oz

Thanks to the wonderful conceit of creating both a black and white and a colorful world, the 1939 classic gives us an opportunity to see some great tonal work.

In Kansas it’s not just the absence of color that suggests Dorothy’s bland life. The tonal scheme, as she wanders around the farm exteriors is a bland high minor. It’s actually a tough sell overcoming that in a single quiet song, but luckily Judy Garland was, well Judy Garland. Reportedly the studio execs almost cut “Over the Rainbow” as a slow point!

However when the old biddy, Miss Gulch, appears she is notable for her dark dress. The visit to Professor Marvel’s travelling caravan and the following approaching storm take the whole scheme to Low Major, providing more chiaroscuro, and therefore energy.

In Oz there is that riot of color that is nonetheless a Mid Minor scheme in the background. The parts that make the tonal scheme a Major scheme, thereby adding energy and focus, are Dorothy herself in her light dress, Glinda in her pink tint gown, the Witch’s now classic striped socks, the Witch of the West’s darkness and the Yellow Brick Road in wide shots. It is the nature of yellow that it always has a high value. (Ask me about working with Yellow as a lighting designer some time!)

Munchkins compared

The Minor tonal schemes of the backgrounds are especially noticeable in black and white stills. The Emerald City (Medium Minor), the Dark Forest (Dark Minor) and the Witch’s Castle (Dark Minor) function as a background to the actors’faces and moments of action (eg flickering flames).

Contrasting Discords

This is a very useful concept. I’ve read some different definitions, but the one I learnt originally makes the most sense to me.

Saturated hues have an inherent tonal value. I already mentioned that Red is dark (Low). A discord occurs when a color (tint or shade) is combined with a tint, so that the expected values seem reversed.

It’s all about the relationships of colors to each other.

For example:

  • a very pale Pink with Pumpkin (dark orange) is a discord.
  • Lavender and Kelly Green is a discord.
  • Any time you put a pastel with a bright yellow, that’s a discord.

Tone in Writing

The word “tone” is used differently in writing than as the design principle. Here is the simplest and clearest definition of tone in writing that I have found.

However in considering the design principle of Tonal Value when crafting a story it might apply to sentence length, balance of phrases, use of short or polysyllabic words, and paragraph structure. A piece with long, flowing sentences suddenly punctuated with short exclamation might be commensurate with a Major scheme.

Tonal Value might also be reflected in writing by the use of descriptive words that refer to metaphorical light and shade.

Edges

Tonal variations can flow softly, like an ombré or gradation, or they can have sharp edges like the glare of a sunny afternoon. Hard edges can suggest energy, strength or tension and conflict. Consider a classic chessboard – there can be no greater tonal range, in perfect balance, the setting for a perfect codified conflict.

Here’s another wonderful site about color theory.

Aesthetic Preference – Art Deco Industrial Chic

Art Deco carved Penobscot facade

Ooh this is one of my personal favorite Aesthetic Preferences! I find it appealing on so many levels – partly because of where it leads visually (to Steam Punk especially in one direction, and Craftsman in the other) and partly because of the places where it is found – those wonderful glamorous movies, books, theater and retro magazines. I like clean lines and simplicity, but I also like curves.

Here’s how I describe it on my Etsy Treasury:

Geometry, repetition, symmetry, Fred and Ginger, high contrast, the Chrysler Building, Erte, clean lines, metals, hard edges, Ayn Rand, “Metropolis”, Poirot, the Nile, luxury train travel.

To this I would add the Pyramids and Scarabs, 1930’s Vogue magazines still lush with fashion illustration, and some of that hard edges, three color screen printing that transformed so dangerously into totalitarian propaganda. (That’s where I stop liking it.)

Cunard Line Poster

Of course I was imagining “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile”. Add “Hugo” for the clockpunk end, and never forget Busby Berkeley and all the theatricality of “Gold Diggers of 1933” and the harder edged “42nd Street. Had it softened by the time “Casablanca” added Moroccan lushness?

Thoroughly Modern Millie movie still

Julie Andrews in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”.

You can see still it in Gary Cooper’s ties in “The Fountainhead”. You can enjoy it on the roof of spook central in “Ghostbusters”. “The Great Gatsby” – both the movies, and the book. For a very light take try “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. For the dark side try Fritz Lang. “Metropolis” is his most famous, but his work includes “M” a film noir classic.

In no other style or time period are the architectural forms so clearly influential in jewelry design.

So many of those wonderful buildings are lurking in New York, but Los Angeles has a surprising number of them downtown – the old Wiltern Theater on Wilshire is one example. You can see many examples on my Pinterest board.

In terms of design Elements, Art Deco Industrial uses line to create simplified shapes and moves away from the uneven abstracted leaves and flowers of Art Nouveau nature forms (that’s coming, never fear). The Principles it embodies include high contrast (High Major Tonal Schemes), repetition and symmetry. (This is coming too.)

Using Art Deco Industrial Chic

As a style of decor, it can be quite easy to incorporate into many modern homes, by the use of painter’s tape and paint. Try a little Trompe L’oeil and create some faux molding with painted shadows. Chevrons, so popular right now, are an offshoot of it.

 

 

Winged Circle from Egypt

Collect vintage posters and frame them simply, or incorporate a bit of Egyptian into your decor like my late mother-in-law did with her black and white striped mirror frames.

Egyptian applique scarab

Art Deco definitely lends itself to stencils. Try layering – start with a light grey or silver paint over white, then offset the same stencil again in black.

Silhouettes, that work so well with romantic styles, look great in an Art Deco situation, with simple black and silver frames or perhaps with a fan shape in the background.

I like it because it is so easy to incorporate actual and reproduction vintage with very simple modernism and the clean lines of Mid-century Modern furniture – although I would be cautious with the textile prints and textures from that period and let Art Deco textile designs create my drapes and pillows.

Is this one your favorite too?

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