Light it Up, Up, Up — The Power of Contrast in Art

Light and Dark | Splash 18 | Fourth of July | Artist Daily
Firework display; image courtesy of Getty Images

In celebration of the Fourth of July, one of the first things that comes to mind for many of us—besides hot dogs, hamburgers and all that red, white and blue—are fireworks lighting up the dark sky.

The explosion of color against darkness creates an almost entrancing effect. The brightness draws in your eye, making it almost difficult to look away.

This contrast of light and dark can carry the same effect in art and is a powerful way to bring attention to your focal point. The viewer’s eye will follow this contrast, becoming consumed in your artwork in a similar way fireworks keep us looking up at the sky.

Below are six watercolor paintings that beautifully capture light and dark, featured in Splash 18 – Value: Celebrating Light and Dark.

Celebrating Light and Dark in Watercolor

Light and Dark in Watercolor | Splash 18 | Fourth of July | Artist Daily
In the Rain by Rainbow Tse

Interesting, but also challenging, I often paint nightscapes because they bring out the light best. The contrast and vibrance come by very dark patches against areas of light.

The key to mesmerizing nightscapes is correct tonal value. When you concentrate on the lights and darks, you will begin to see the night taking shape.

— Rainbow Tse

Light and Dark in Watercolor | Splash 18 | Fourth of July | Artist Daily
Into the Light by Mark E. Mehaffey

Into the Light was based on a reference photo shot quickly into the light pouring through this large building’s front entrance. I heightened the contrast around the central figure and simplified all other details.

— Mark E. Mehaffey

Light and Dark in Watercolor | Splash 18 | Fourth of July | Artist Daily
Splash by Peter K. Lau

I used the largest brush I could find and started wetting at the top of the watercolor paper before I applied India ink, watercolor and, lastly, iridescent acrylic. The whole process is fast and loose. It is a study of light and dark value in its simplest form.

My understanding of value came from my darkroom days when I employed the Zone System for my black-and-white prints.

— Peter K. Lau

Light and Dark in Watercolor | Splash 18 | Fourth of July | Artist Daily
Last Light at Marco by Sandra L. Strohschein

Here the sunset itself is the focal point. In order to keep the light the focal point, I overpainted strong dark backlit shapes. The ratio of water in these warm and cool pigments is greatly decreased, resulting in darker value strength.

— Sandra L. Strohschein

Light and Dark in Watercolor | Splash 18 | Fourth of July | Artist Daily
Setting Sun by Anne McCartney

This piece lent itself to high-value contrast as its story is the fading light of the reflected setting sun amidst the dark waters and hills. The palette is fairly limited, so the values make it sing.

Don’t be afraid to go to the dark side; without the darks, it’s hard to see the light.

— Anne McCartney

Light and Dark in Watercolor | Splash 18 | Fourth of July | Artist Daily
The Moscow Nocturne No. 3 by Chien Chung-Wei

This subject makes use of backlighting, sunset and a night scene—a trifecta of expressive subject matter. These lighting effects are not very hard to produce (using masking fluid) but they are very eye-catching. The intense lights not only provide strong contrast but also awaken people’s realistic spatial memory.

I concentrated these bright lights, mostly streetlights and headlights, in the focal area. It is important not to paint too many details.

–Chien Chung-Wei

Nighttime in the City

The city lights at night create a strong contrast of light and dark. Check out the preview below from Paul Jackon’s Watercolor Workshop: Nighttime in the City, which walks you through how to paint a rain-slicked cityscape at night, step-by-step in watercolor.

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