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Contrasts in art and music. An analogy.

Variance is key


I listen to metal. No, not Slayer, not Motörhead and only rarely Metallica.

Progressive metal. No, not Dream Theater either, and not classic 70s prog.


I'm talking about modern progressive metal, bands like Protest the Hero, Between the Buried and Me, The Ocean, The Hirsch Effect or Rolo Tomassi. Music that is characterised by complex and dynamic structures, unconventional time signatures, complicated guitar fiddling and different vocal styles. Here, the most diverse styles and influences collide and mix, resulting in innovative compositions. It's a demanding and varied genre and the only one that doesn't bore me in the long run.


In short, my passion in music is a genre full of contrasts. I only recently realised that this can also help me with my art.


Contrasting is not about simply overloading an image with many different, competing elements – on the contrary. It's about visual hierarchy, about eye guidance.


To stay with the music analogy: Acoustically, we would quickly be overwhelmed if the instruments were beaten without rhyme or reason, without key and without concept. Structure is needed, even in the craziest and most intense parts. And through an antithesis - a slow, quieter part, a melody or at least some form of variation, we bring tension into the composition. The contrast makes the loud more powerful and the quiet more tender. The context strengthens the individual characteristics of the parts. Visuals work the same way. We can use this to work with.


Amplitude – brightness and volume


Our eye always looks for the greatest light-dark contrast first, as this helps us to recognise edges and boundaries between objects and thus enables spatial perception. This is why it is usually considered the most important contrast in visual art – even before colour contrasts.


From a physical point of view, the amplitude (the height of the deflection) of a wave provides for light and dark in the case of light, and for loud and quiet in the case of sound. In paintings, "loud" contrast is therefore primarily defined as strong contrasts in brightness. Quiet contrasts are added by delicate lines, structures, light tonal and colour contrasts.


One can do without the other, but only together do they make really great pictures that you want to look at for a long time. With the strong contrast that catches and directs our eyes, and the weaker ones, the details that you may only discover after you have been looking at the work in depth for quite a while.


Tips for a better handling of tonal values:

  • Guiding the eye: Consciously use contrasts and especially their edges to direct the viewer's gaze.

  • Create three-dimensionality: Use stronger brightness contrasts in the foreground, weaker ones in the background.

  • Make objects recognisable: Colours don't really matter for this. What sounds hard can be incredibly liberating. An object, no matter how alienated in colour, will still be recognisable as such if the light and shadows are right.

  • Check tonal values: In colour, we often find it hard to judge whether the tonal contrasts in an image are working or not. Then a quick mobile phone photo with a black and white filter can work wonders. The weaknesses of the picture then become apparent quite quickly.


Assessment of intermediate states of an image in black and white

Wavelength – colours and pitches


Different wavelengths allow us to perceive different colours visually and to hear higher or lower tones acoustically. In both cases, there are some that harmonise more with each other than others. Some colours or tones can really interfere with each other, but often we need these strange accents to make a work really interesting. Light and dark may make us understand what is being shown – but colours can often add to the visual appeal of a painting.


Tips for better use of colour:

  • Warm and cool colours: To create spatial depth and atmosphere, use warm saturated colours for light areas and cool desaturated colours for shadows.

  • Colour harmony: If you feel overwhelmed by the choice of colours, look at pictures where colours harmonise well and try to understand why. You can also "steal" a colour scheme you like, that's allowed ;) I am not a fan of looking at a colour wheel to see which colours are where and which of them correspond to some scheme, as this approach seems very technical to me - I always do it by feel.

  • Complementary contrast: It can help, however, to know the greatest possible contrasting colour in each case - i.e. red to green, yellow to violet and orange to blue. You can deliberately make a colour in a picture glow if you use its complementary colour very desaturated in the immediate vicinity. For example, a luminous blue through an environment in very desaturated orange.


Bright colour through surrounding desaturated complementary colour

Space – areas and note duration


By giving different colours or tones different amounts of space, we can create further contrasts between them. Is there overlapping, are there pauses, what dominates, what accentuates?


Visually, we can create tension when areas are of different sizes and shapes.


Tips for exciting compositions:

  • Think two-dimensionally: Whether you work abstractly or figuratively, start thinking of your paintings as a composition of areas. Where do you have large, small, round, square, light, dark areas? How are they positioned in relation to each other? Is there any tension between them?

  • Create size contrasts: We often unconsciously use areas of the same size in pictures, even if they have different shapes or colours. Pay attention to this and consciously incorporate areas that are much larger or much smaller. In representational pictures, this does not mean that you have to change the size of objects. You can, for example, also combine them visually so that together they form a surface, omit something or add something.


Different sized areas provide more excitement

Character – tools for different colour applications and sounds


In the same way that the sound of different instruments, or "sound sources" in general, can combine brilliantly to create a whole work, different types of colour applications can complement each other beautifully. If you like, I am talking here about the handling of sound or colour.


Is something slapdash or neatly worked out, is it distorted or clear, shouted or sung, hard or soft? Is something used pure or sampled, beaten or stroked? The answers to these questions will decisively shape the character of the resulting work.


Tips for characteristic colour applications:

  • Getting started: Textures and traces of colour can help us lose our fear of the blank page. By starting to play on a surface, we create something to respond to and develop. This is easiest to do with inaccurate tools that we cannot control so precisely.

  • Tools: It's worth testing, changing and combining. Drawing, spraying and splashing are also allowed in painted pictures. The misuse of tools from the DIY store is not uncommon in larger pictures – have you ever used a trowel to paint or scrape paint over a picture? Things always come into being here that I could not have produced willy-nilly or digitally. We used to call it "controlled chance" in my studies. Don't forget here either: It helps to consciously create contrasts. Smooth edges and rough edges, small brushes and large paint rollers.

  • Materials: It is not only about applying colour, but generally about adding different pictorial elements. Collage can also be a way here. I work, for example, with leftover paint from dried palettes or underlay paper from other projects on which paint edges have been created. Playing is fun!


Collaged materials in my paintings

Stories – figurative representation and lyrics


Let me make one last analogy: in my opinion, abstract art is to figurative art what instrumental music is to music with vocals. It is a question of deciding whether we only want to suggest a story or really tell it. And as with music, where songs with good lyrics usually touch me more, I experience pictures with a visible content more intensely. They give me more to deal with. That is purely subjective. With regard to both music and art, I know people who think differently and would say exactly the opposite. And often enough, there will be a concept in the background of a (more abstract) work that is not immediately visible or audible, but resonates, even if only through the title.


For me, film music is an exception – perhaps because the story is there anyway, only here you don't need vocals to tell it.


Tips for image concepts:

  • Spine: Twyla Tharp in her book "The Creative Habit" called it the "spine" of an artwork – a kind of backbone, the basic idea that underlies a work. It's the question you should ask yourself at the beginning of any project: Why do I want to do this project, what attracts me to it? It is not necessarily the message of the work, but the starting point, its reason to exist.

  • Whether abstract or not: A theme helps to develop ideas and get started. Listen inside yourself, what interests you, research, collect, go through the world with the artist's glasses. If you know what you want to tell, you will be able to paint the picture (or write the song). You might even write yourself a briefing, or a description of the picture, as if the work were already finished. This does not mean that you have to know from the beginning what the picture will look like in the end. But perhaps what feeling it should convey or what it should tell.


My art journal – a collection of research and ideas

Music to my ears – the brush on the canvas


Maybe I overused the music analogy a bit in this post, but the idea just felt very right. How I wish I had synaesthetic abilities to feel it even more!


So what can we learn from this? Maybe we should think more in terms of rhythm and composition in our paintings, of sound images, of loud and soft, of a beginning and an end. Maybe a series of pictures is a kind of concept album on a visual level. Perhaps inspiration succeeds across disciplines.


In any case, I have always listened to music while painting and let myself be accompanied by all its contrasts, energy and emotion. Unless I listen to podcasts. But that's another story. And shall be told another time.

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