Principles of Design: Contrast

Steven Aiken, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Steven Aiken

    Steven has recently received his Bachelor's degree in English from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has also taught Fine Art at a shelter for youths for six months at Shannon West Youth Center.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Learn about contrast in graphic design, interior design, and other art. See examples of this in the principles of design in all of its many forms and styles. Updated: 01/21/2022

Table of Contents


Contrast in Art

Contrast is one of the fundamental principles of art. It is the pairing of elements that are opposite from one another. Without contrast, everything in a work of art would be the same, such as a fully white canvas. Contrast draws the eye from place to place and allows artists to create focal points, or areas of high visual interest. In this way, contrast ties in heavily with composition. Contrast's art definition is relevant in every kind of art, from traditional art and graphic design to interior design.

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  • 0:05 Principles of Graphic Design
  • 1:01 Contrast as a Principle
  • 2:07 Contrast in Graphic Design
  • 3:03 Types
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The Contrast Principle of Design

Art would be significantly less appealing without this one of the many key principles of design: contrast. Examples include opposites such as light and dark, color and lack of color, angles and curves, high detail and low detail. It can also involve opposite, or complementary, colors, such as red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and purple. Contrast is the opposite of unity because contrast calls for things to be different from one another while unity requires sameness.

There are many ways an image can incorporate contrast. Here are a few:

  • Space: Images can have areas of positive and negative space that break up the composition and draw the eye in different directions.
  • Color: Contrasting colors stand out from one another, having the same effect as the contrast between positive and negative space.
  • Shape: Variations in shape size, shape number, and type of shape can all be a form of contrast.
  • Distance: The foreground or background can be blurry, exaggerating the illusion of depth in an image and drawing focus to what is clear.
  • Detail: Objects rendered in greater detail can create focal points within an image because there is more to look at in areas of greater detail.
  • Texture: Different textures can break up visual space or create differing levels of detail between areas (a swatch of fur versus a matte surface, for example).

Contrast in Visual Arts

Contrast has been used in traditional art for as long as artists have been making art. However, some of the most striking examples of contrast lie in the paintings of the Romantic era of art.

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare, created in 1781, utilizes the principle of contrast on multiple levels. The first and most obvious example is in the use of lights and darks throughout the painting. Much of the painting is dark or even black, while the woman that sleeps in the bed is bathed in light. This draws a great deal of visual attention to the woman and the thing that sits on her chest. Fuseli also contrasts color when depicting the impish figure and the woman. The woman wears mostly white and has very pale skin, while the impish figure is a muddy color, and very dark in comparison.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli

Fuseli also contrasts beauty against ugliness in this painting. The surrounding scene, while mostly dark, is elegant and contains luxurious fabrics and draperies that form flowing lines throughout the painting, implying a pleasant-looking interior. The woman also portrays a sense of beauty both in her appearance and in the dynamic pose she holds. The other figures, while not taking up much space in the composition, provide a stark counterpoint to the beauty because of their strangeness.

Contrast in Graphic Design

Contrast's graphic design definition involves contrast less in the sense of light and dark like in the previous example and instead relies on contrast through color, line, form, size, and space. In graphic design, contrast must be used in order to direct attention or dissect information. As mentioned previously, one of the key purposes of contrast is to create a focal point, and this remains the same here. However, graphic design often needs to be more direct in this approach. The graphic designer's goal is often to grab and maintain attention for their piece.

Elements of contrast include color, detail, and space.

graphic design image

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a good example of contrast?

Imagine that there is a painting with a large amount of bright areas as well as dark areas. The bright areas draw the eye because that is the natural reaction for our eyes to take. The eye will likely try to avoid the dark areas because it cannot see what is in the darker areas.

What is an example of contrast in design?

Contrast in design can take many forms. Designers can use different, contrasting colors to create a focal point/attention grabber for an ad or an article, for example.

What is contrast in art and why is it important?

Contrast is the representation of opposite sides of a design element, like brightness versus darkness. It is important because it creates focal points for the image, which are areas that draw viewers' gaze.

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