High Contrast Drawings

High contrast drawings show form and dimension a lot better than pictures where everything is mid toned. We want to get the darkest darks and lightest lights to make our two-dimensional piece of paper appear to show a three-dimensional object or scene. 

The white we see on the paper is as light as we can get. So what happens if we want to convince the viewer of our drawing that it is brighter than it actually is? For example if we are depicting a bright sun in a landscape?

We can create high contrast drawing like this by simply surrounding the lightest area with dark tones. The darker they are, the lighter the white paper will appear. To show sunlight we need shadow. 

Contrast and Shadows

If you stand in a gallery and survey a range of pictures on the walls, the ones that beg for closer attention are usually those with a good balance of light and dark areas - high contrast drawings. Pictures composed by beginners often suffer from a lack of areas of contrast and are frequently bland in tones, (see one of my very early attempts at the bottom of this page).

The eye naturally goes to the point in the picture where the lightest light meets the darkest dark, and ideally that point should fall close to one of the Golden Section hot spots. I won't repeat too much about that here, but do click on the link if you are unfamiliar with the term.  

As a keen photographer, I take many thousands of images, a high proportion of which will always benefit from a trip through an editing program on my Mac to adjust the contrast levels to make the centre of attention stand out. Take the images below. The first one is just as it was taken by the camera. The second was adjusted to ensure improved contrast levels. 

Remember that you can't show light in a picture stronger than the white of the paper, and that is far less powerful than light in the sky in real life. You can't show the sun successfully, unless it is at dawn, sunset or in the mist - all times when the power of the sun is depleted. 

In order to get the light effect for the sun, the rest of the picture has to be very dark, as shown by the sunset photograph above.

Surface texture in high contrast drawings

Light falling on an object also indicates the type of surface - from brick or stone, to the delicate surface of a child's skin compared to the wrinkles in an old man's face. It is all down to light and shadow, more than colour. Get your values right and it doesn't matter WHAT colour you use. High contrast drawings will still read correctly even if your fox has green fur, instead of chestnut!

Strong sunlight will enhance the texture of a surface. This gives our eyes clues to how it would feel to run our hands over the object. High contrast drawings succeed in giving us these visual clues. 

It can be very tricky turning a dull day on your reference into a sunny day in your picture, as inventing shadows is not a task for the unskilled.  As one who has done several night scenes, into which I have inserted people, I can assure you that working out shadows from multiple light sources is a real headache.

On the subject of shadows, be careful to make them cooler in colour than the lit areas alongside. Don't just add black or grey. Go for purples, blues and complementary colours to show the lack of light. 

Light reveals shape

As well as the surface texture of an item, strong contrasting light will also give our eyes an indication of its form. 

Let's take a simple example. Here we have a round ball ... or is it?

How about if we fill it in. Is it now a convincing ball?

This is progress ! We have moved on to what could be a solid shape. BUT It is clearly not a ball …. perhaps just a solid disc of some sort.

Fair enough - I am sure you get the point.This is more like a ball, but it could be a round floating balloon.

This is a much more convincing effort.

Not only does the highlight and the grading of the colour show us the rounded shape, the shadow shows us that it has solidity and is not floating.

BUT we have another point we can see from this illustration. The 'ball' without a shadow has quite a roughened surface, which we have obtained by using two colours on a fairly rough paper. The first colour, yellow, has covered the surface and a highlight has been left white.  This tells us that the shape is in direct light which is coming from the upper lefthand side. The second layer of colour on top skips over the paper tooth and tells us that the shape has a rough texture, reminiscent of an orange.

We have used watercolour pencils for this rough looking shape, so we can then take a damp brush and manipulate the pigment on the paper. After doing so the object now looks smooth. By adding a shadow we know it is resting on a surface and the position of that shadow gives the same message as the white highlight, as to where the light is coming from.

The result of our efforts is to portray a rounded yellow ball in a lit situation. The way that the light has been shown gives solidity to the shape.

When you get it wrong!

Amateur watercolour painting by Carol Leather circa 1970.

If you squint at the low contrast watercolour sketch (above) that I painted as a teenager, you will see that the objects look like flat cutouts.

The green peppers are lighter than the darker green background but there are no shadows to give them form or indicate that they are resting on that dark green surface.

The handle on the jug does have a slightly darker area inside which was an attempt to give depth. However, it suggests that the light is coming from the top right, towards the back, and therefore not reaching the inside of the handle.

This is not held out by the reflections on the jug and bottle which would lead the viewer to think there was a light in front of the arrangement. 

Look closely at the carrot (that flat orangey brown object at the lower left). There is a vague suggestion of a shadow on the lower right of it, which would lead us to believe that it is lit from behind and to the left! 

From memory (my teenage years were far in the distance now) the darker brown section of the jug had a very knobbly texture. If painted well, this would have been apparent by shadows below each bump on the non lit side. As it was not smooth, there would not have been a highlight on the surface either.

This early attempt was a failure and shows how poor use of light and shade will not create a realistic result. 

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