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Creating Contrast As An Artist

Edge control and contrast are two of the most potent poison’s in an artist’s arsenal.

A beautiful portrait sketch in charcoal from Steve Huston

In your reference photo above, you see a dance of…

  • Dark lines versus light lines
  • Thin lines versus thick lines
  • Sharp lines versus dull lines
  • Hard lines versus soft lines

That’s the big idea of art… you have to choose what information to include, to exclude, to invent, to delete, etc.

What information to make interesting to the viewer, and what information to make uninteresting.

The result is a balanced, delicate, beautiful piece of wart.

A beautiful portrait from Matt Smith taken from his course over at Domestika

Both the pink and the yellow encircled areas show contrast and edge work, but it’s clear the artist chose to make the eye on our right (her left eye) more important than the other eye, by making it more “interesting” in the technical sense. What makes things interesting? Contrast! Think about light vs. dark, straight vs. curved, big vs. small, soft vs. hard, warm vs. cool, etc.

  • Where edges are lost, your eye will not focus
  • Where edges are found, your eye will focus

… and on and on the infinite dance of pitting contrasting ideas against one another goes.

That’s intentional artistic decision on the artist’s part.

To do it yourself, you have to go into your drawing asking yourself, “what do I want to communicate?” and then – for the entire time you’re working on it – your decisions should work towards that goal.

It’s not something you bolt on at the end of the process. The artist has chosen some places to be more interesting/important by adjusting the contrast in those areas.

So when you get a basic lay in down in your portraits, STOP 🛑 and plan…

“Where do I want to go with this? What’s the story? What’s the most important moment here? etc.”

That’s how you do what’s referred to in the above reference photos.

If you’re having trouble learning it, I suspect you’re only learning from young artists. Start watching content from the old guys and you’ll learn plenty about it – it’s all they ever talk about.

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