Comparing contrast

I hope you're having a quiet afternoon to sit back, sip tea, and read this book. If, however, a fire engine screeches to a halt outside your door with a siren blasting, that would be an attention-getting contrast. Contrast is putting two strikingly different items close together. An abrupt change is always attention getting.

Figure 6-7 provides an example of contrast in color. This picture is a large area of dark blue with a small, intense yellow butterfly at the bottom. The bright yellow is a surprise against the dark blue; it contrasts with it. The yellow is intense, light, and clean. The blue is dark, heavy, and textured. Surprise! Contrast.

Figure 6-7:

A neon yellow butterfly provides contrast on a page of dark blue.

Figure 6-7 provides an example of contrast in color. This picture is a large area of dark blue with a small, intense yellow butterfly at the bottom. The bright yellow is a surprise against the dark blue; it contrasts with it. The yellow is intense, light, and clean. The blue is dark, heavy, and textured. Surprise! Contrast.

To choose contrasting colors, use your color wheel (check the Cheat Sheet at the front of the book for a sample). Colors that live close beside one another on the wheel are somewhat related and don't contrast with each other. The biggest contrast comes from juxtaposing complementary colors — those opposite each other on the wheel. The yellow of the butterfly is not the complement of the blue (that would be orange), but next to blue's complement, so it's a split complement. Split complement schemes make for interesting contrast; the colors vibrate with energy.

Of course, intensity and value also need to be the right recipe. If all the colors are neutralized (toward gray) or darkened or lightened, they may not contrast dramatically.

Because contrast attracts attention, it's a good thing to use in the center of interest. Contrast works with any element. One pointed triangle in a painting of all curvilinear shapes is contrast. A bit of bright white in a low-key (mainly dark) painting is contrast. Abrupt change of any element is contrast.

As in life, contrast must be used sparingly. Too much contrast in your picture creates chaos, just as the siren and hubbub become annoying if they continue.

Grading your changes

The slow, subtle change of gradation can sneak up on you, just as age does. Gradation is a subtle, gradual change of light to dark, of warm to cool, of one color to another. It's my favorite type of transition in watercolor. Instead of using one color to shade the side of a building, use a warm orange that slowly becomes a cool blue.

If the changes are smooth and subtle, the audience won't even see a difference, but they'll notice a more interesting scene. They may not even figure out what you did to make it more interesting!

Try making a graded swatch:

1. Paint a 1-x-4-inch rectangle of watercolor paper with clear water.

If you use a 1-inch flat brush, this is one brush stroke. The area should be shiny damp. If the paper absorbs the water and dries immediately, add another stroke of water.

2. Choose two colors. Paint about 1V2 inches of one end of the paper with one color, and paint the opposite end with the other color, leaving about 1 inch of clean paper between them.

You can choose any two colors you'd like. You can experiment with primary mixes to see what secondary mix happens in the middle. Or choose opposites to see what neutral results from the complementary colors. In Figure 6-8, I used ultramarine blue and rose madder.

3. Use your brush to gently blend the two colors together.

Pull a little color from each end toward the center. Add more color if needed.

You may want to pick up the paper and tip it back and forth to let gravity help in the process.

When you're finished, you should have a slow, smooth transition from one color to the other. You've made a graded wash.

Change colors" often in your paintings — at least every inch. Because of the slow, gentle change in graded washes, you can use as much gradation as you like. Gradation just makes things more intriguing. Use abrupt change like contrast (see the previous section) sparingly.

Check the areas of gradation in Figure 6-9. The house roof has a subtle gradation of warm color on top where the sun hits that gradates to a cool area near the house. The yellow walls of the second story are a gradation of earthy ochre at the top changing to a bright lemon yellow, then changing back again on the ground floor. The trees have numerous gradations of green. The grass is a gradation of yellow-green to a blue-green. The shadows have color gradations. These color changes are much more eye-catching than having only one color, value, or intensity.

Figure 6-9:

Many areas of this painting take advantage of gradation as a means of change.

Figure 6-9:

Many areas of this painting take advantage of gradation as a means of change.

Shadows are more entertaining to the viewer if they combine several colors, and they're perfect candidates for gradation. A shadow using slow gradation of blue to red with purple in the middle is more to look at than just one straight color.

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Creating harmony

Often people like each other because they are somewhat alike — they get along, they're harmonious. Creating harmony in a painting involves the same principle. You use colors or shapes that get along.

To find colors that make sweet harmony, you just look for colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel (check the color wheel on the Cheat Sheet at the front of the book). And, unlike some human relationships, neighbors on the color wheel all get along. Because the colors are so closely related, they create harmony. Another term for colors directly next to each other is analogous color.

You can create harmony by making slight changes and repeating any design element in a slightly altered form. For example, you can repeat round shapes but vary them slightly.

The still life in Figure 6-10 repeats ovals, circles, and round shapes with slight variations to create harmony throughout the painting. Upon a round tray sits an oval silver teapot, round fruits, a curvy creamer, a concave spoon, a sugar bowl with an oval top, a wine glass filled with orange juice, and a tea infuser all in oval shapes. Even the flowers in the background have oval centers and petals.

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