Contrasts In Composition
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Mar 10th 2012
Updated On: Sept 3rd 2012

First off, you may wish to read my Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Shapes tutorial, it contains information that relates to the topic in this article.

In composition theory, a more pleasing composition is a composition that contains contrast. Now by contrast I don't mean only the contrast control in photoshop, although that can be used to give us the kind of contrast we're discussing.

I'm talking about the original definition of the word: "Contrast: The state of being strikingly different from something else, typically something in juxtaposition or close association."

So contrast is two opposing things. Like black and white is a contrast. Big and small is a contrast. Soft and hard is a contrast. Loud and quiet is a contrast. Thick and thin is a contrast. Textured and smooth is a contrast.

Contrast in a composition is used generally for 2 reasons...
So lets start off with creating Visual Interest, and see the different ways we can use contrast to make the image more aesthetically pleasing.

Part 1: Contrast To Create Visual Interest
Contrast In Value

So lets start with the following image.

It might be fine as a wallpaper pattern, but it certainly doesn't get your attention. After all, wallpaper isn't about getting attention, it's about blending into the background. So lets start with our first contrast, Contrast of Value. We have dark grey and black, lets change the dark grey to white.

Already much better. This is the sort of contrast that we think of when we think of the contrast control in photoshop, it makes the blacks blacker and the whites whiter. Value contrast is perhaps the strongest contrast you can use, as a large chunk of our vision system is reserved specifically for interpreting value. That's why black and white movies still work today, our eyes are hardwired to respond to value is a very strong way.

But while this is a contrasty image, it's missing another sort of value contrast. There's only two values in this image. So while the white is contrasting with the black, the black elements do not contrast with the other black elements. So lets vary the value of the elements.

So even though this image is less "contrasty" in a way, in another way it has more contrast because individual elements are now different from each other. Which makes the eye happier.

Contrast In Size

The next contrast is size. Each element is the same size, which is too regular and machine like.

So lets randomly scale and elements.

This is a big improvement. Note that which sizes you pick can be as important as making sure the objects have a different size. For example, look at these 5 elements...

They have contrast in size, since they're all different sizes. However, the contrast itself is pretty regular, each "I" is 75% the size of the previous one. Check this image out...

So here not only is each element a different size, but there's no obvious pattern to those sizes. This generally provides a more organic and visually pleasing result.

Contrast In Position

So while each element is a different size, they're all evenly spaced. So lets add contrast to their location.

So each element is a different distance from its neighbor, but if you look at the image overall, it still feels kind of evenly spaced. Lets increase the randomness.

This creates areas of detail and areas of visual rest. To learn more about this principal, visit my lesson in Areas Of Visual Detail, Areas Of Visual Rest.

This Contrast in Position also shows off another principal, which is that of clumping and grouping, since the elements in the image sort of clump together. For more information on Clumping, visit my lesson in Clumping or Grouping.

Contrast In Hue/Saturation

You can also use Hue and Saturation to create contrast. Hue is the actual color, like red, blue, green etc. Saturation is how "pure" the color is, in paint terms, a color that's mixed with white or black is less saturated.

This image...

doesn't have as much contrast as this image...

Even though from a value perspective, the blue color is identical to the yellow color.

And this image...

doesn't have as much contrast as this image...

Contrast In Shape

In this example, all of the elements are the same base shape (although there is contrast in position and size).

Changing the shapes to be more random can create a nice contrast.

Or make some shapes rounded while other shapes are hard edged.

Contrast In Edge Quality

This is basically blurry vs hard edges, you can give a little visual variety by making some of your objects softer and some harder.

Part 2: Contrast To Create Emphasis Or A Focal Point
Contrast In Value

So you can help create emphasis, or a focal point, with contrast. Like if you give the hero a bright red cape, and the other colors around him are desaturated brown, you have just used "Contrast In Hue/Saturation" to create a focal point, and lead the viewers eye to the hero. Larger objects are frequently the focal point. And areas of high value contrast are frequently the focal point.

Lets start with Contrast In Value. The black dot has a lot of contrast with the white background and the light grey dots, whereas the light grey dots have less contrast between themselves and the white background. So, your eye will tend to look first at your black dot, making it the focal point.

This is the same thing we did with Contrast Of Value to create visual interest, it's just this time we're using the same technique for a slightly different goal, instead of using it to move the eye all around, we're using it to direct the eye to one specific spot.

Contrast In Size

Making something big among smaller nearby elements can create a focal point.

But the same can be done by making something small in a world of large objects.

Sometimes people will say make something big in order to make it a focal point, but it's not really necessary for your object to be big, it just has to be strikingly different in size than the elements around it to draw attention to itself.

Contrast In Position

Putting something off on its own from the group can also create emphasis...

This is sometimes called "Emphasis Through Isolation".

Contrast In Hue/Saturation

Like value, different colors can create contrast. Some colors stand out a lot more than others, and some colors next to other colors stand out, so you can use this is emphasize certain elements.

If you give an element (or nearby set of elements) the color red where all the other elements are green, then the eye will tend to move towards the red element. Also note, the red objects, even though they are 6 separate I's, get grouped together visually into a single large red object using the Grouping / Clumping phenomenon I discussed earlier.

If you have a super saturated color in an image that's otherwise very unsaturated, this also draws the eye.

In general, bright saturated colors tend to be more eye catching. Dark desaturated colors tend to be less eye catching. Warm colors (red, yellow, etc) tend to jump forward to the eye, and cool colors (blue, purple, etc) tend to recede. That's why if you want to make a small room seem larger, paint it a darker cooler color. The walls will tend to recede making the room seem bigger. Painting it saturated, bright red will make the walls seem to leap out at you, and so the room will see smaller.

Contrast In Shape

If you have a lot of one type of shape, just changing the type of shape on a single object can really emphasize it.

Or here we use one shape that's made of all equal sized lines. The second shape uses a combination of thick and thin lines. The one with contrasting thick and thin lines probably draws your eye first.

Contrast In Edge Quality

This is basically blurry vs hard edges, the eye is drawn to hard edges first, so one technique is to make your background soft and have the edges of your focal point hard to draw the eye.

Practical Examples

In this tech floor image, I have used contrasts in shape, value, size and position to create visual interest and nice areas of detail and rest. But the image doesn't necessarily have a strong focal point.

Whereas this image uses the same techniques to not only create visual interest, but also to create a focal point, which would be the circular vent in the upper left of the image.

For our Focal Point, I use "Contrast Of Shape" (something circular in the middle of lots of straight pipes), "Contrast Of Value" (the circle is brighter than surrounding things) and "Contrast Of Size and Position" (there's lots of tiny detail near the focal point, but the focal point itself is rather simple in shape and detail). I also use other techniques to make it the focal point, such as lines pointing towards it from every direction, but we'll get into that topic later with a tutorial specific to creating focal points.

One extra note: The placement of the circle actually fights a little with the eye in terms of being the focal point. Frequently focal points should be near the center of your image, or in other predefined places (like along one of the lines if using the "Rule of Thirds"). So if I wanted to improve my focal point, I might consider moving the placement of the focal point slightly.


So please remember the rules of contrast next time you make an image. It may help you take a boring pattern and give it more life, or help direct the eye to the point of the piece. Or, if you want to hide an object that's supposed to be less important, reduce its contrast with its neighbors to have it melt into the background.

Oh, and while there's lots of literature out there on these rules, I'd especially like to thank Sharon Calahan for her section on composition in the Advanced Renderman Companion, she gives an excellent talk on this subject.

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