Friday, May 25, 2012

Embrace Contrast and Make It Work For You

When I was in decorative painting school learning how to create an authentic-looking faux marble with veining, my instructor often said that contrast was "the enemy". It was a pretty dramatic statement, but in context it made sense. As students, one of our goals was to learn how to make veins and drifts look natural, which meant as if they'd been buried over eons in deep layers, instead of just sitting on top of our sample boards looking like phony bits added with a feather or sea sponge. To help achieve the natural look, the final step in the faux marble process was to add translucent coat(s) of glaze, reducing the contrast between the veins and the drifts, hiding any suggestions of the tool we used to create them, and burying them enough to look real. 

Creating faux marble is an example of when contrast can work against you, but more often contrast is a key way to add the drama and interest that can lift a design of any type out of the realm of ordinary and make it memorable. What do I mean by contrast? There are many types, and if you can understand them and train your eye to identify them at work, including when there's too much or too little contrast in a particular situation, you'll develop the skill to use them successfully in your own projects, whether it's in your home, your garden, or even in your wardrobe.

There's a lot more to the principle of contrast and ways to create it, than you might think. As a starting point, look at this list from Wikipedia's essay on design elements and principles. Note that it relates to many types of design, and that the list is  far from complete! 

Ways to Create Contrast

  • Space:  Filled vs empty, near vs far, 2-D vs 3-D
  • Position:  Top vs bottom, isolated vs grouped, centered vs off center
  • Form: Simple vs complex, beautiful vs ugly, whole vs broken 
  • Direction: Vertical vs horizontal, stability vs movement, convex vs concave 
  • Structure: Organized vs chaotic, serif vs sans serif, mechanical vs hand drawn 
  • Size: Big vs little, long vs short, deep vs shallow 
  • Color: Grayscale vs color, light vs dark, warm vs cool 
  • Texture: Fine vs coarse, smooth vs rough, sharp vs dull 
  • Density: Transparent vs opaque, thick vs thin, liquid vs solid 
  • Gravity: Light vs heavy, stable vs unstable
Did you think of some types of contrast that didn't make the list? What about a patterned fabric vs a solid, a high gloss paint vs matte?  Can you think of other types? 
High Contrast Creates Dramatic Impact

Contrast with Paint
When you're doing a painting project, make conscious choices about how much contrast (drama) you want, and factor in the condition of the surfaces you're painting. Choose low contrast colors and low sheen paint if they're not in good condition, or you'll call attention to their shortcomings. 

Here are some contrast issues to consider:
  • Color Palette - opposites on the color wheel, as shown in this turquoise and orange room, are high contrast and dramatic, neighboring colors are lower contrast and more subtle. Using a single color or color family throughout is a lower contrast, less dramatic choice than multiple colors.
  • LRV Values - There is an accurate way to measure the contrast between two colors. (See my article on Light Reflectance Values and learn about this valuable tool.) This information is essential when you want to control the amount of contrast between colors.
  • Color Temperature and Saturation - warm vs cool colors, bright vs dull colors, tint colors vs shade colors (See my previous post on Tints vs Shades.) 
  • Paint Sheen - the higher the gloss, the more every imperfection will show. 
  • Treatment of Architectural Details - If the proportions of architectural details such as baseboards and crown molding are skimpy or the quality isn't good, paint them in the wall color instead of an accent color so that they become texture instead of a contrasting element that has an unintended negative effect on the appearance and proportions of the room.
Subtle Contrasting Elements 

Monochromatic and neutral color schemes continue to be very popular, and rely heavily on the use of contrasting elements to be warm and inviting. Notice the neutral color palette in this bedroom, and how several types of subtle contrast in the paint, fabrics and accessories create warmth and interest. There's a mix of organic and inorganic elements, sheer fabrics and heavy ones, large scale objects and smaller ones, contrasting colors on the walls, ceiling and trim, etc. The lesson in this room is that contrast doesn't have to be bold to be effective. 

Unless you're creating a faux marble, contrast isn't the enemy, it's your friend. Learn to embrace it and make contrast work for you.