On Painting: Izzy's Logic of Color and Light- Part I "Contrasts"

a rough morning sketch
Long ago, in the before times.  I spent a number of years as a teacher of digital illustration and painting.

I worked for several institutions and regularly I would be shown the work of students that were struggling with different aspects of image making.

I don't teach anymore these days, but I regularly get requests to look at images.

It is truly amazing how much things have changed, but more so how much they remain the same.

 With the advent of Gumroad, Youtube tutorials, Patreon, and the overt consumption of how-tos and specialized techniques the sophistication of the artwork has increased significantly!

However, the same exact struggles seem to be taking place.

People are having difficulties with the fundamentals, and it's getting harder and harder for them to diagnose the problem with their work because the cancer in the skeleton is made invisible by the glitter all over the corpulent flesh.

There is more frosting than cake, and the struggle is very real.
-All of this is done with the assumption that if it looks like what is good, it is good.-
There is a lot of vitriol out there being spat at academic learning in concept art.  With the prices as they are, I certainly understand it.  Hell, when I went to college, I thought it was ridiculously overpriced, and it appears that art schools, especially those routed toward the entertainment field, have doubled down on their costs.  So, truly, I get it.

This isn't an argument for or against learning in a school, but rather a reminder that the format has always had profound benefits.  Particularly in the time-honored prerequisite approach to learning to make images.  In this buffet style rush to kit bash our own art educations, core staples of how to paint are being tossed aside.  All of this is done with the assumption that if it looks like what is good, it is good.

As everyone progresses with their work, they seem to be quickly coming to terms with the idea that this isn't necessarily so.  The increase of memes and self mockery among those in and on the cusp of joining this industry is pretty clear proof that we are in the middle of an incredible artistic paradigm shift.  Love it or hate it, the digital medium was always bound to instigate that for this community.

So.  What the hell is this bastard on about, you ask?

Well, I want to help you to learn or relearn the stacked fundamentals that will give you the ability to self diagnose your work.  We all need to be able to look past the corpulent glitter and analyze what is wrong with the skeleton foundations of our pieces.

This ability to analyze and understand what is working in great art, and how those kernels might apply to your own work, is the most vital skill of an autodidact.  If you'd like to sharpen this skill, read on!

"Self portrait on Toilet" was painted only with a round brush
on a Nintendo DS
I'm writing this series to help explain why we make some of the decisions we make in painting.  How light behaves and the best ways to manipulate your pixels and your viewers to communicate exactly what you intend to, in your work.  If I have the energy as we continue, I plan to also write on the more ethereal aspects of what we do, All the way from design methodology to storytelling.

Anyway, the key to control in your work, from fundamental painting, all the way to the extraordinary tips and tricks you find online now, is in that last paragraph.  You must understand, and compute, that painting (no matter the medium and techniques used) is a form of manipulation.

In essence, you decide what a viewer will focus on.  You decide the order that details will be viewed, you decide what's important, and what's not important.  You decide what will be included in your image, and what will be cut.

That is your responsibility, as the artist.  Never forget that every image you make is your own narrative.

If people are seeing things you didn't intend, or they aren't looking where you want them to, that is one hundred percent on you.

To our good fortune, these problems are incredibly easy to diagnose, and fix when you know what to look for.  So, why don't we take a look at your tools of manipulation!

Your number one tool in all things art is CONTRAST.

Seriously!  From music, to dance, to painting, to space design, et cetera.  All of your control, all of your personal style and voice, all of it comes down to how you manage contrast.

The primary thing that is keeping your painting from looking the way you intend is poor control of contrast in one or more elements.

This sounds simplified and easier than it should be, and in a way, that is a little bit true.  Contrast is a singular concept, but it applies to almost everything you are doing in your painting.   Remember that contrast is the play of not just differences but similarities in an element.

Think about it.

Contrast of: Value.  Edges.  Hue.  Saturation.  Design rhythm.  Brushwork.  Detail.  Lighting.  Even narrative.

These are pretty much all of the academic controls that you can adjust in your image to change how it looks.

Simple design rhythm change up creates a focal point.
This is a frequently used contrast in concept art.

Everyone's seen these saturation games.
When you are at the level you need to be
you will recognize exactly where you need your punch.

Don't desaturate, change the color mode to greyscale.
This is the only way to truly see value relationships in photoshop.
I set a hotkey to View/Proof/Custom- Working Grey Dot Gain 20%

In a very real sense, everything listed here is about edge control.
All other elements are really expressed in how you manage edges.

Brushwork, shape, value, edges, line work, rhythm, are all at work here.
Even in something stupid and simple like this, there's a lot to consider
in your head.  So when it comes time to work on a concept where a
figure or some realistically rendered object might be involved
this quickly becomes a nightmare.

So, yeah, those academic swatches are an instant snoozefest.  I know!  I hated them when I was in school.  It wasn't until later that I came to realize how wildly important these concepts are in painting.

My concern for lots of you artists out there is this; while kit bashing your education, you'll skip this stuff because it looks lame.  You will be shooting yourself in the foot, missing out on truly understanding the controls you have available to you in your work.

I will continue this train of thought in a moment, but first I must take us all on an aside.  When we talk about our contrasts, just to simplify, I'd like you to think of them as you'd do any binary scale.

For instance an edge can be either softer or harder.  Simply meaning the gradation between two different shapes can either be gentle with many descending or ascending steps between, or an abrupt difference from one to the other.  The number of steps equate directly to either being a soft edge (many steps) or hard edge (few or no steps).

Since we're talking about digital painting.  Let's think about it in Photoshop terms!

It's important to keep this mental palette in your head while you self diagnose.  It will aide you in figuring out problems as well as immediately give you the right direction to go to fix it!

So!  Here's the kicker, kids!

Like many palettes in Photoshop if you adjust one of these sliders all other sliders will be affected!  If you make an adjustment to detail for instance, you are automatically altering edges.  Same for color! If you desaturate a hue that is reddish, next to one that is equally greenish, the greenish will appear to change as well!  If you make erratic strokes in an area with lots of fiddly-bits your detail will go up, and your edge contrast will go up.

See what I'm getting at here?

Contrasts.  Every single element that has that binary possibility (not all are listed in my examples above btw) are members of a complex and completely interdependent and relative relationship.  This complex relationship can be called Simultaneous Contrast.

Simultaneous contrast is generally only applied to the concepts of hue, saturation, and value.  But I think you can see how I've expanded the term and how it rightly combines the greater concept of our elemental contrasts.

This is the basic toolkit we all have for our paintings!  You may not have been aware of it, or the relationships they all maintain.  The fact is, for better or worse, you've been using them all along!

In my case, when I finally figured out how these things depended on each other, I really felt I unlocked the core aspect of painting.  It was at that exact point when I began to feel like I could go back and look at my paintings with the same eyes my great teachers had!

I wish there were painting power pellets.  Oh yeah! Adderall!
In his amazing book "Alla Prima: Everything I know about painting", Richard Schmid talks about how to achieve realism in your painting (I highly recommend purchasing his book).

I'm going to butcher his brilliant writing, but at one point he essentially says; The key to realistic painting is mixing the right color and value for a shape you see, then drawing that exact shape.  Then mixing the correct color and value and painting the next exact shape right beside the first.

This sounds grossly simplified, but it's utterly true.  Unfortunately, it is also true that this basic notion is easily lost in concept art.  

The reason is obvious if we think about it.  

It's because Schmid is simplifying what he is seeing in front of him, and we are inventing everything from scratch!

There is endless talk online about the necessity for reference.  There's also an equal amount of bragging when it's avoided or skipped.  We've all been guilty of that, and I think we are all finally coming around to realize how sophomoric and pointless such affectation is.  

The best way to learn how to achieve realism in a made up image is to study similar things gathered from reality!  Period.

Now, hold on!  I'ma let you finish, but you gotta understand that I'm not baggin' on using photos in your painting! 

What I am saying is, you need to understand how the aforementioned toolkit functions in your painting before you turn to photos to achieve realism.  So many artists struggling to get into concept art are picking up advanced techniques and putting them into their toolboxes before understanding the basic purposes of their most primary tools.  

Throwing a photo into a painting without understanding our variety of contrasts is the same as adding a randomizer to that set of sliders in our simultaneous contrast Photoshop palette.  Control is completely lost, and getting it back on track takes a lot of work (and a fair amount of frustration).

This particular problem is truly chaotic when you consider that the palette I made up isn't for the painting as a whole, but really for all the elements that combine into your total painting.  

Well.  Shit just got complicated.

Don't worry!  Take my hand, and I'll walk you through it.  

Here is a recent painting I did.  I call it Ghostfood.  It's inspired by Asian mythology regarding the appetites of the dead.  Cool, huh?

Don't eat fire, kids.  You think molten pizza is bad?

Anyway, I chose this painting as an example because the whole thing is truly just me playing with contrasts.  In particular, it's an example of edge contrasts, but it also has some very simple hue contrast going on in the complimentary oranges and blues.

Does it feel a little brighter in this shot?  It isn't.
The thing to understand about simultaneous contrasts is that they are entirely relative.  If you crop an image, like I did to the left, the relative values, colors, edges, all change.

For example; when you look at the larger full image above.  Unless you are scrutinizing, the stripes in the pajama shirt are a tertiary or quarternary detail.  The values of the stripes seem to clump into a greater whole when they appear relatively smaller with the rest of the available values presented in the background.

Hell!  The cropped image even appears brighter, even though the colors and values are exactly the same!

The amount of a contrasting elements changes the relative contrasts themselves.  Crazy, huh?

So much of this kind of thinking is built around understanding the perception of your viewer.  This is the subtle manipulation of painting that I mentioned earlier.

Want to see some more fake painting magic?  Let's check out how saturation and relative value structures can play into the light of your paintings.  We can agree that the light on the ghost girl above is warm and certainly of a reasonable brightness!


This is so much less inviting and warm without color.  I half expect her to crawl through my scree.... graaahaaa!!!!!

Taking the color out of the image by changing the mode to grayscale shows us the truly dark key* of the image over all.  The brightest brights are the candle flames themselves.  Nothing else comes close.  And if we break it down to rough percentages the bright elements can't constitute more than maybe .2% of the whole image.  We will talk more about value and color keys in coming articles, but for now I want you to focus on how contrast is working here.  It is the combined efforts of all of the contrast elements I wrote about that gives the painting the appearance it had.

When you are making your paintings you have to remember all of these relationships and not over correct any one of them.  As I've said a few times now, you can't alter one without affecting all of the rest!

Let's look at the concept of edge contrasts in a microcosm now.

Enhance 224 to 176.  Enhance.  Stop.  Move in.  Stop.

As I've said, look at how contrasts appear to change when we look through the lens of relativity.  Here things are looking violently crisp in respect to the edge relationships.  Try to remember, the contrast between the blue light on this elbow and the dark field behind it is exactly the same as it is in the full sized image.

When you add in all the other value relationships and contrasts, this contrast seems almost soft in comparison.

And that's what I'm looking to explain here.

The bottom line is.  Every edge in your painting, every clump of value, every play of saturation and hue is necessary to create the whole.  If one thing isn't working, the incorrectness can cascade all the way down the line and ruin your painting.

Sounds like a portent of doom, doesn't it?

No worries, you zarkin' frood!  Stick with me.

The best weapon you have against inconsistent contrasts are already right there, in your face.

When you learn academically to paint from observation it is positively beaten into your brain to squint at your subjects.  Sure, people mention it, once in a blue moon when talking about painting in tutorials online.

It isn't violently hammered into your skull, though.

I'm serious.  You'd be fucking sick of hearing about squinting after a couple years in school.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!

Now, under instruction, we are taught that the reason we squint is to boil down our values and shapes into clean graphic forms.  No pun intended, but this is a gross oversimplification of what your squinting really does.  In every possible way, squinting lets you visually alter contrast.  Edges are softened, values combined, hues muddied, complex lighting gets lumped into simple shapes.

Do you see how this verbiage leads perfectly into Richard Schimd's breakdown of painting?

How does this help when, as I've already established, you are painting something directly out of your head?

Well.  We simply reverse engineer the process.  When you are painting, regularly squint at it and see how those contrast relationships are working with each other.  Edges that are too sharp for their location will emerge, values that don't belong will pop, colors that aren't being friendly are suddenly apparent.

Squint.  Frequently.

Don't just stop there.  Squint at your references, figure out where and why soft edges are happening.  Photo reference has so much more value than just mimicking detail!  I'll get into more detail on reference and how I use it in a later article.

Sometimes, you can see edges and details pop when you aren't even squinting.

This is almost always the case when photos are being used as textures.  Again, this is a mistake when not used with full intent toward the final image.

Photographs are packed with details and visual noise which can be super distracting in the overall image.  Especially if the photo is singularly located.  You see it all the time with details on character's armor or on the trees in backgrounds.

Always ask yourself these questions when you are using photos.  Is this where I want my focal point?  Is this detail more important than my focal point?  Is this overlay creating distracting artifacts?  Is the photo introducing colors or values that are not working with my overall painting?

Kratos has strong feelings about photos that break the contrasts in your paintings!

Often, the answer will prove the photo is not beneficial as it is.  No problem.  There are ways to implement the photo while keeping it within the realm of your painting, and that's where the paths of the pros and the amateurs always diverge.

Here's some -if this, then that- scenarios regarding contrasts for you:

-If you have too much detail or two many artifacts in your photo reference, then Filter/ Blur/ Smart Blur.

-If the photo is introducing colors you don't want, then desaturate or alter the saturation and hue of the layer.

-If the photo is creating an unwanted focal point, render your real focal point so that it is more interesting.  Introduce greater contrasts of color, value, detail, etc.

-If the photo is flattening out a three dimensional object like a character or object, then Edit/ Transform or Puppet Transform to make it fit the contours of the object in perspective.

-If the detail of the photo is necessary, but still drawing the eye too much, try the blurs combined with lowering the contrast of the photo layer itself.

-Always try different layer blending modes to see what works best.

-Be wary of trendy techniques like photo offsets and chromatic aberration.  While these do make cool contrasts they may be making focal points you aren't intending, or making your image look blurry and difficult to look at.  These effects are the absolute best if used sparingly and wisely!

-In direct opposition to my statement above.  If your photos fit the values, colors, details, and perspective of the parts of your painting but still are popping, then New Layer, White Fill, Filter/Add Noise and set layer to low opacity and play with the blending mode.  If noise is everywhere, the photo becomes less obvious!

See, I told you I'd help you out!

As you can see, Contrast and the control of contrast through Simultaneous Contrast are insanely useful tools in the digital artist's repertoire.  Developing a sense of how your contrasts will behave in your painting better puts you in charge of how close your final image will look to what you intended.  It will also allow you to cut huge amounts of time going back and forth trying to 'find' your painting in the madness of incorrect contrasts.

I hope I have enlightened you a bit on the purposeful use of simultaneous contrast so that you can make your artwork stronger through understanding the fundamentals of painting and the logic of color and light.

I hope you have found this essay useful!
I welcome questions and comments and theories of painting below or on my FB page (linked below)!

If you have ideas for future topics please feel free to post them!

I plan to also do follow up blogs to each article where I invite readers to send a piece they are struggling with that fits the theme, and I will show techniques on how to fix it!

*Up next on On Painting: Izzy's Logic of Color and Light-  "Value Keys"

Here's an article I wrote a while back on the Advanced Principles of Creature Design

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PewPewHue said...

This is super awesome info, thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Great article! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy I could cry :') haha thanks for the amazeballs article, Izzy!

Alexandra said...

Very helpful! Thank you so much, Izzy! :')

Anonymous said...

Thanks Izzy,

if you can keep em coming!!!

Philip said...

Thanks Izzy! Immensely helpful stuff.

Donatello said...

Thank you a lot! I'm a beginner graphic designer so it was really helpful for me. I work with HDR with such http://hdreditingsoftware.com/effects/ mac plugins. You can do some tutorial about it.