Design Series: Contrast

Sandy and I are on a roll with the next installment of the series. Check out the podcast.

Contrast is a Principle of Design


  • Difference in light and dark.  Or light vs dark. (See The Sharpened Artist).
  • “..the juxtaposition of differing elements and principles which can provide tension visual interest.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.102)
    • “Unless you are looking to create a sense of chaos or absence, you must learn to manage the contrasts present in your artwork so as not to overwhelm or bore the viewer.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.102)
  • It is the “placement of varying elements, including color, within a design.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.198)

Types of Contrast:

In this section, you might want to have a color wheel handy.

  • Emphasis by contrast: we talked about this when we talked about emphasis and focal point, so you can go back and review that episode, but I want to bring it up again from a different angle: the contrast angle rather than the emphasis angle. When you have a prevailing design scheme and one element contrasts with that design scheme, that element becomes the focal point, because it is in contrast to the rest the of the piece. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.48-49)
  • Contrast of scale:  “Unusual or unexpected scale is arresting and attention getting. Sheer size does impress us.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.61) Seeing something far larger than other elements of a composition provides scale contrast and visual interest.
  • Contrast of Hue: ” …easiest contrast to attain by simply using pure, intense, undiluted colors. This contrast is greatest when using the primary color combination of red, yellow and blue.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.103)
  • Light/Dark Contrast: using black and white is the boldest contrast obtainable. (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.104)
  • Cold/Warm Contrast:  the color combination of red orange versus blue green is the strongest  cold/warm contrast. … The contrast of temperature is very effective when trying to depict depth, the concept of near and far or three dimensionality.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.105)
  • Complementary Contrast:  “…gives a sense of equilibrium to the eye of the viewer. The pairs of colors that lie opposite each other (look on your color wheel) on the color wheel have a diametric* contrast to each other. They complete one another, but can also cancel each other out. … Complementary contrasts are”, generally considered “pleasing to work with and offer the artist the opportunity to hone his or her skills in creating balance.”(A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.106)
  • Simultaneous Contrast: “… is perceived by the viewer rather than being objectively present. … When a pair of direct complements are used together in their pure hues, exclusive of any other part of the color scale, the line where the colors meet will look as though it is moving. This happens because the colors are contrasting off each other at the same time. Our eye has a hard time discerning where one intensity begins and the other ends, thus causing the sense of movement or ‘sizzle’.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.107)
  • Contrast of Saturation:  “…refers to the contrast between pure, intense colors and dull, diluted colors. Saturation can be diluted in four basic ways – the addition of white, black, gray or a color’s complement.” The purity of the color is changed, but also the inherent temperature, brilliance, behavior, and emotional response. (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.108)
  • Contrast of Extension: “… is the contrast between space and size using two colors, one light and pure and the other dark or dull.” Shapes will look larger or smaller depending on the brilliance of the colors and how much two colors contrast with each other. (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.109) A sharp contrast in color can give a small object more significance in a large space. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, pg.9)
  • Contrast of Value: Often the key to the success of a strong design. “When there are many colors present, it is harder to judge value, but it is critical to be able to see value changes in a color composition and employ them to the advantage of the design. Two different colors with the same value in a composition can have less contrast or impact than two different values of the same colors.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, pg.47)


  • Art is at its best when the contrasts included provide managed, well-balanced interest in such a way so as not to fatigue the participants. There are at least 7 types of contrast, many of which have to do with color, but not all. You can have contrast of big and small, for example in your quilt as well (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.102)
  • ” Each art form has its own type contrast.” (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.102)
    • Book or movie: good vs evil
    • recipe: contrasts of sweet and salty
    • Woven shawl: smooth and nubby fibers
  • Unity is enhanced when variation and contrast are included in the design. “…the design’s interest is strongest where contrast exists and the unity is broken.” (Adventures in Design, pg.99)
  • “The strength of the design lies in the contrast, not in the repetition. That being said, the design needs its repetitive features to create unity,”  (Adventures in Design, pg.99) but the repetition allows the contrast to exist.
    • We are really getting into principles and elements working together. Have any of you had a hard time trying to work with just one principle or element?
  • If contrast in size is combined with a contrast in color, a focal point becomes even more obvious.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, pg.29)
  • Two color quilts have good contrast.





*completely opposed :  being at opposite extremes