Shop Mobile More Submit  Join Login

:iconriemea: More from Riemea

Featured in Collections

Project Educate Articles by kareynomer

journals by mimose-stock

Articles by Bernuviel

More from DeviantArt


Submitted on
December 5, 2013
Submitted with Writer


3,350 (3 today)
119 (who?)

PE: Contrast in Digital Art

Thu Dec 5, 2013, 7:00 PM

This article aims to introduce different kinds of ‘contrast’ in digital art, although most of the following points can also be applied to other media as well. :)


(noun) - Contrast is a principle of art. When defining it, art experts refer to the arrangement of opposite elements (light vs. dark colors, rough vs. smooth textures, large vs. small shapes, etc.) in a piece so as to create visual interest, excitement and drama.


1. Colours and Brightness

One of the first things to come to mind when we think of ‘contrast’ are colours contrasting with each other.

Colourwheel01 by Riemea
(The colours labelled as 'primary' are the primary colours in the RGB colour model. Primary colours of the CMYK colour model are cyan, magenta and yellow.)

Looking at this colour-wheel we see that the colours lying opposite of each other (=complementary colours) contrast with each other, also called the complementary colour contrast.

 Yellow-blue by Riemea                       Red-green by Riemea
(left: yellow-blue contrast | right: complementary red-green contrast)

But there’s more to colour contrast than that. We can also achieve contrast through warm and cold colours, as well as bright and dim ones. The most extreme colour contrast is that between black and white (although one could argue about whether white and black are actual colours).

Happy Birthday by LimKis Cold as frozen fire by Kirana
(left: warm and cold colours contrasting with each other | right: a bright red and dim blue contrasting with each other)

:bulletblue: Tricks for working with colour contrast: :bulletblue:

  • If you chose a colour for some part of your artwork and are looking for one that contrasts with it, think of a colour that would hurt your eyes if it were combined with your first colour. Then tone that colour down and maybe look for a slightly different shade, until the combo isn’t a pain for your eyes anymore. It doesn’t work out for some reason? Play around with other colours and shades, and experiment!
  • If you’re stuck and don't want to use complimentary colour contrast try variations of these: red-blue, blue-yellow, purple-orange, orange-green
  • Postprocessing: The colour contrast in your work can be easily adjusted through levels, with Photoshop for example.

  Levels in Photoshop Elements by Riemea
(Taken from the German version of Photoshop Elements 9)

You can either adjust the whole range of RGB at once, or adjust Red, Green and Blue individually (click the deviations below for more information on how to use levels).
Using Histogram and Levels by Tiberius47 Understanding Levels by ritwikr

2. Subject, Surroundings and Focus

But there’s more! Contrast isn’t all about colours, even though that is what we associate it with the most.
There’s also the contrast between the subject and its surroundings.
If you ever had the pleasure of having to analyse a photograph in school you might remember that there are cases where the subject, let’s say, a man dressed in fine, expensive looking clothing, is in a place we might not expect him to be, e.g. he seems to be walking down a dark, dingy alley. He doesn’t seem to fit there. Or rather, he and his surroundings don’t really fit together – they are opposites. So we have another type of contrast we can use in our artworks: Our subject(s) compared to the overall setting.

The Dragon Tamer by m0zch0ps  Mermaid's Wisps by tincek-marincek
(left: a boy seemingly playing knight on a battlefield | right: a mermaid in a strange forest)

If we’re looking at the contrast of subject and surroundings we should also take a look at the topic of focus. I think we can agree on the fact that having a focal point, something the eye unwittingly wanders and strays back to after having taken in the entire work, is very important.
An artist can employ contrast as a tool to direct the viewer's attention to a particular point of interest within the piece, be it through a higher level of detail or sharpness, or something else.

Glance by Saimain  Painting Christina Aguilera by ChipWhitehouse
(left: extremely detailed foreground contrasts with the blurry background | right: focus on the very realistic face through the contrast between 'sharp' face and unfocused edges)

3. Art Style and Textures

Using different art styles in your artwork, such as implementing a few art nouveau styled elements into an otherwise realistically painted work, is another way to create contrast. That works with other styles as well of course, like combining manga styled linework with a more abstract approach at colouring for example.
Last but not least, contrast can also be achieved through the use of textures. It can be as simple as putting a texture into the background to emphasise the clean outlines and shading of your work, or using different kinds of textures, like smooth and rough ones.

The Seven Deadly Sins: WRATH by dahlig  birds fly up by bluefooted
(left: mix of art nouveau elements and realistic painting techniques | right: contrast between textured background and clearly outlined foreground)


Contrast makes an artwork more interesting and can be used to draw the eye to certain areas. It's achieved through opposing elements of any form - colour, texture, subject, style, texture, shapes and so on. Of course you might aim for a certain mood in your work where colour contrast just doesn’t work, but you can still employ other types, such as the contrast between your main subject and its surroundings. Contrast doesn’t have to be about deliberately using clashing colours, it doesn’t have to be about colours at all, it can be as simple as emphasizing the focal point, or generally using opposites of some kind in your artwork. It doesn’t have to be extreme, and you don’t have to force contrast into your work through extremes either. And: Contrast is about opposites, but be careful not to overdo it! But like with so many things in art, experimenting is the key. ;)

Contrast Art Feature

Hieraconism 4 by Gerwell The Little Mermaid by jeffsimpsonkh  
Blue Dragon by YeaaaArtist Syllia's Nightmare by Dianae Like a virgin by AquaSixio
  Howl's transformation by keerou Waterfruit - 2nd edition by Viccolatte
Blue+Red by CuteReaper Tiempo de un bano by x-posion
Cut it by Sin-Amber Red River by andreasrocha
Not quite right. by ailah Silence by RuanJia
 Mimicry by waryofwolves Angel by Trefle-Rouge
commission: kanuka by vmbui Ruination by skdiesel
3D Gnarl by SaTaNiA A Study in Pink by alicexz

I hope you found this article helpful, and thanks for reading! :heart:

An article on contrast in digital art for %projecteducate's Community Week. :dalove:
Add a Comment:
tincek-marincek Featured By Owner Dec 11, 2013  Professional General Artist
Wonderful article and thanks for featuring my work...:love:
Riemea Featured By Owner Dec 11, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks! You're very welcome! :hug:
tincek-marincek Featured By Owner Dec 12, 2013  Professional General Artist
Welcome :iconsupertighthugplz:
cality Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
This is a fantastic article, Rie! :clap:
Riemea Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks Steph! :heart:
Astrikos Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2013   General Artist
Great article!
Riemea Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you! :)
MissLunaRose Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2013   General Artist
Lovely article! You make very good points. :aww:
Riemea Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you! :hug:
witchIings Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2013  Student Digital Artist
The primary colors (of pigment, at least) are actually magenta, cyan, and yellow. Other than that, this is a fairly well-written article that has taught me a lot. <3 Thanks for sharing!
Add a Comment: