Arts & Activities  
      February Student Page      

      Concept, Composition, Confidence, Contrast, Color Harmony, Character, Courage      
      By Dan Bartges      
      Assignment 6 In A Series Of 10: CONTRAST, Part I      

What's the single most important visual element in most successful paintings? Hmmm. THAT'S worth exploring!

Throughout this school year, we're discovering seven key ingredients in successful paintings and showing you how to use them in your art work. So welcome aboard! As our voyage continues to unfold, you'll begin to see big improvements in your own paintings.

HOW IT WORKS Each month, simply read about the paintings featured on this Web page. Next, print out the "Quiz Me!" sheet, write in your answers to three short questions, then hand the sheet in to your art teacher. (The correct answers will be shared with you on the next month's Student Page.)

      CONTRAST, PART I      

Our brains derive great satisfaction from processing variety and making comparisons. We perform these functions all day long, usually so quickly and effortlessly that we're not even aware of these constant accomplishments.

A good painter knows what the brain likes, and that for a painting to be successful it must connect and communicate with viewers' brains. The French artist Eugene Delacroix expressed this connection as a metaphor, writing that a painting is "the bridge between the mind of the painter and that of the spectator." The American photographer Ansel Adams put it another way: "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer [or painter] and the viewer."

One sure way for a painting to communicate, is for it to engage the viewer's preference for a variety of comparisons. This variety of comparisons can be expressed in one word: Contrast.

When people talk about "contrast" in a painting or photograph, they're usually referring to value, or tonal variations—the artwork's light, medium and dark tones. But there are several other contrasting elements in most good paintings including color,
distinctness, size, texture and relative distance—all potential elements of contrast that will engage the viewer's eyes and mind.

Most artists would agree that tonal value (the range of lights and darks in a painting) is the single most important element in most successful pictures. Why? Because more than anything else, contrasting values reveal what's being portrayed in a painting. So this month, let's concentrate on value. Next month, we'll consider some other contrasting elements.

VALUE The best example of tonal value is a black-and-white photograph. There is no color. The picture is composed entirely of varying values in a range of white to mid-tone grays to black. The brain loves to figure out and recognize an image composed of lights and darks. It likes both subtle contrasts in values, and bold, dramatic differences as in this photograph of Mt. Hood, a volcanic mountain that towers above the Oregon landscape.

      Dan Bartges. Oregon's Mt. Hood. Black-and-white photograph      
      IWhen you're painting, getting the values correct is your #1 job. So strive to make the relative lights and darks as accurate as you can.

Are there ways to make sure your painting's light areas are light enough and dark areas are dark enough? Yes, there are a couple of helpful methods. The best way is to take a digital photograph of your finished painting, then, using a photo-editing program on your computer, reduce its color saturation all the way down to black and white.

Does the image still work? Right away, you'll be able to see if your painting's values are accurate, or if they still need some work. If you don't happen to have your camera and computer handy, then simply squint your eyes while looking at the painting. This will simplify the image, making it easier to tell if your values are working.

As an example, let's look at this dramatic oil painting by Winslow Homer—first in full color, then only in black and white. Notice that even when the painting is robbed of its color, the scene is still clearly recognizable and maintains its sense of depth. Homer got his values right.
      Winslow Homer (American; 1836–1910). High Cliff, Coast of Maine, 1894. Oil on canvas; 30.75" x 38.75". Gift of William T. Evans/Smithsonian American Art Museum.      
      QUIZ ME!
Click here to download February Quiz Me! document
      Author: A full-time artist since 1996, Dan Bartges is the author of the book, "Color Is Everything," and two books on sports, "Winter Olympics Made Simple" and "Spectator Sports Made Simple." Visit his website at      

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