Contrast of dark and light


If the first two properties (hierarchy of colors and [[ colors create light ]]) are present in the field, but the relative dark and light are not appropriate, then the colors still won’t shine. Inner light is partly caused by dark-light contrast.

One of the basic things we have to do while we are making something colored is to squint at it, half close our eyes so that we see only grays, and see if the inner light is still there. If it isn’t there — that is to say, if it isn’t visible in the dark-and-light pattern of what is in front of me alone — then it will never be there when I open my eyer fully again and the colors come back in. We have to work out the overall pattern of light and dark as if the colors weren’t even there in order to get them right.

We may define the necessary dark-light contrast in a colored pattern like this: If we take a black and white picture of the colored pattern, the pattern of the dark and light alone (without the color) will still be beautiful.

To understand the rule, we must first recognize that every color has a tone, and that every painting can be seen as a pattern of black, white, and gray. This way of seeing is hard, since hue sometimes obscures our capacity to see tone. It is useful to remember that we can see the pattern of tones by squinting, half closing our eyes. When we do that, colors go to gray, and we can tell, for any two adjacent colors, which is darker. We can also see the painting as a pure composition of tones. Red, for instance, is nearer to black than one expects; yellow is nearer to white than one expects. Every color has a level of grey.

The simple rule is this: When the pattern of tones — seen purely as blacks, whites, and grays — is a beautiful one, then the colors can shine with inner light. When the pattern of grey tones is not beautiful the colors will always seem muddy and cannot shine.

In the world of black and white, where things are monochrome, the vital importance of contrast is obvious. Without contrast there is no form. But because color is so fascinating, it is easy to become mesmerized by hue and to forget about dark and light. We are so dazzled by the brilliance of the colors, and by their color contrasts, that we assume (often without realizing it) that dark light contrast is no longer essential.

Indeed, almost the most common mistake which students make in their early color studies is to try to produce brilliant colors using colors which lie in a too-narrow range of tones. This almost can’t be done. There is hardly a single example of great beauty in color, which does not also have considerable dark-light contrast, regardless of the various colors that are used.

In order to make this rule easy to follow, I often find it helpful to consider the painting even more extremely, as if it had only two tones: black and white. We can imagine it like this by making a kind of mental cut at some imaginary threshold of gray: everything above the cut is considered white, and everything below is black. Using this threshold we can see every painting — or building — as a two-tone composition of dark and light only. The simple rule, then, is this: The pattern of black and white must be a good one.

Yep, sounds like a simple rule. ;)

I find it useful to make a thumbnail sketch in black and white — just to see if the basic composition of light and dark has life in it. When it does, it makes sense to go on to color. Until it does, making the painting is almost a waste of paint.

The black and white come to life when they do something similar to the way the yin-yang symbol works. The two establish a polarity in which each defines the other, where each is something solid and established in its own right, and where the two together create a sort of electric tension.

In shape, the two things, black and white, must each form positive space, as defined in the geometric properties. In amount, the quantities and ratios of dark and light must be enough to electrify each other. This electrifying tension between dark and light does not imply anything so literal as the equal amounts of black and white. The issue is relative. A beautiful painting might be very light, in which even the so-called dark is a rather soft gray — possibly with one or two highlights go black. But the contrast between the two would still cause a polarity. In another case, a painting might be dark all over, with even the so-called light, being a deep dark gray. But again, even in this case, the painting contains, as fundamental to it, a basic pattern in which the polarity of darker and lighter substances creates something and springs to life.

There is one subtle exception to the rule. Sometimes two colors which affect each other very much produce light, because they are of almost similar weight, without dark-light contrast. The way that a certain blue flashes on red, or the way that gray sometimes works with pink, are two examples. These cases are rare. But even in these cases the flickering tension between two similar tones, if transformed to be black and white, still has a beautiful pattern.

(Pages 186-192)

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