Good art has at least some basic parts that work well together. In the last letter I spoke of my favorite powerhouse—Line. This element is often key in the very best pieces, but what comes in 2nd in the race to grab the audience’s attention? Some might be surprised but believe me there is a second most underrated art element.
Almost always over looked by young artists, Contrast is key in making a piece of art stand above the rest. This is why a black and white piece can work so well in a world filled with color. It’s why monochromatic art can stand the test of time as well, but it hides more seductively other types of art. It is the key to be interesting without being flagrant.
Somehow, however, Contrast is not easy for artists to use effectively. Most student drawings lack true bold contrast. While technically these drawings might be magnificent they are far too often quite boring!
Without the great use of dark there can be no light. Honestly, I’d rather look at the newspaper than look at a drawing that holds the same basic levels of contrast throughout. Lack of value contrast is the number one way to make a potentially great piece become merely mediocre.
Let’s take a look at Bathers by a River by Henri Matisse found HERE:
A client rejected the artwork that was originally created on this canvas before Matisse decided to paint over the top of it. Reusing the canvas he allowed himself to experiment with cubist images, which ultimately unfolded a decade of these stylized shapes. But once we look past the strong use of line, what is it that makes this piece so powerful?
While the use of shape is interesting I have to argue that Contrast is the element that gives the viewer a reason to keep looking. The power of the 3rd figure is created through the strong exchange in value seen here. It is revisited in the face shape of the 4th figure, and then again surfaces in 2 strokes of this light value down the back of the 1st figure.
A good piece of art has something that draws us in, and then keeps us discovering. Bathers by a River does this so well, no wonder it still resides at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum. What do you see first? And then where does your eye go next? Do you keep discovering new items to view as you gaze at this piece?
Let’s keep this discussion alive, the art elements are important to fully understand.
Light only shines when surrounded by darkness,