What is the Definition of Contrast in Art?

Still life of blond and brown hair, braided.
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Contrast is one of the main principles of art defined by art historians and critics. It is a strategy used by an artist to break up a work of art, and alter or even shatter its unity by inserting variation. In many ways, contrast is the opposite of the element of unity, in that it commands the viewer's attention by sheer force of its differences. 

Art historians and critics regularly include contrast as a main principle of art, although often in a number of different ways. Contrast is known by a range of terms, such as variety or variation, difference, unevenness, individuality, and novelty.

Contrast Paired with Unity

Contrast can be a matter of arranging opposite elements (light versus dark, rough versus smooth, large versus small), when the artist is working specifically to echo and repeat different levels of unity. In such artwork, contrasts can be paired colors which are chromatic opposites: in a work strictly adhering to unity those colors would be complementary. When the artist uses contrasting paired shapes such as two circles of different sizes, or a triangle and a star of the same size, contrast can be seen as opposite but partnered with the element of unity. 

One example of the kind of contrast that works hand and hand with unity is that of the classic women's suits of Coco Chanel. Chanel paired a unified set of contrasting colors—primarily but not exclusively blacks and whites—and rectangles and squares as a contrast to the unified whole of a woman's soft colors and shapes.

Antagonism of Color and Shape

Contrast can also be antagonist colors and shapes: Renaissance painters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio used the contrasting technique known as chiaroscuro. These artists set their subjects in a darkly lit room but picked them out with a single pool of contrasting light. In these types of uses, contrast does not express parallel ideas, but rather, sets aside the subject as unique or significant or even sanctified compared to its background. 

In its Gestalt sense, contrast is arousal-driving, or emotion-producing or -stirring. Contrasting areas in art can have high information content, and express complexity, ambiguity, tension, and variability. When opposing shapes are set next to one another, the viewer is often immediately drawn to the polarity of the images. What is the artist trying to convey with the difference? 

Measured or Controlled Contrasts

Contrasts can be measured, or controlled: extreme variety can make a piece into a chaotic unintelligible jumble, the opposite of unity. But sometimes that works. Consider Jackson Pollack's canvases, which are extremely chaotic and laid down in contrasting lines and blobs of color, but the end effect is rhythmic in composition and unified in all of its variety. 

So, in effect, unity and contrast are two ends of a scale. The overall effect of a composition located near the variety/contrast end would be described as "interesting," "exciting," and "unique."

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