Learn to add the illusion of depth to your artwork with the effective use of color and contrast.
- I'm Mary Jane Begin, and this is Artist at Work: Playing With Space. Space in a 2D image is an illusion. When we can convince a viewer there's depth in a flat image, it's like playing with magic. Toying with a viewer's sense of space and using it as a tool for eliciting mood can add emotional depth to your images. This is gonna be a hands on journey using color as your most effective tool in playing with space. So let's get started. The scene that I'll be creating is a morning scene with a croissant and a coffee mug.
Imagine being up very early in a place like Paris. I have a reference for Paris that I will imagine out of the window, and I'll composite that into the scene. I've created a sketch here, and I've done it on a purple ground. A ground is basically a surface of color, tone, or white that you work on. I chose purple because it's a morning scene. If you observe color in the morning, there tends to be a lot of purple and pinks when there's a sunrise.
I thought it would react well to the color in the background as well as the orange, which is a complimentary color, of the coffee mug in the foreground. If we start with our palette, I've laid out all the colors that I'll be using, and now I'll start painting. Basically, I'll start to think about the largest, most important shapes here. I really have a strong interest in starting with the mug because it's the focal point in this scene, and it's also the highest level of contrast here because it's the focal point.
What we're gonna try to establish is a sense of space, and the way to do that with one element is to use temperature. I'll try to keep all of the warm color in the foreground and all of the sort of middle tones in the middle, and the coolest color back in the distance. That's not an uncommon thing to do mostly because that's the way it functions in life. When you're looking at something in the distance, there tends to be a lot of air between you and what's in the background, so the tendency is to keep it cooler as though there's air or space between.
I'm gonna observe the shadows that I see and use the ground as part of the shadow. I've also sort of drawn out some of the shadow shapes just to kind of keep those shapes in mind. Like on this coffee mug, I've drawn out the shadow shape of the interior of the mug as well as the exterior. Those are important. The issue of contrast is basically the bottom line here of how to keep something looking like it has a foreground, middle ground, and background.
Use of temperature is one, which is I'm gonna put the brightest, warmest thing, I'm gonna create vibrancy and heat in the foreground with the focus on the mug, the most vibrant and warmest thing in the whole scene. The least bright will be what's way in the background, will be the sky and whatever landscape I put back there. I'll also use edges, and the edges on this mug are basically the shadow edges, primarily, and the edge of the mug against the green that it's sitting on, and against the background, which will be the sky.
Just trying to color match what I see there, and I'm using, at this point, primarily watercolor paint. I'm using it both opaquely and transparently. That's another issue of contrast. When you're trying to create a sense of space, the highest level of contrast, not only in temperature, and in value, and vibrancy, is a contrast of complimentary colors, and this is an orangey red mug against a purple ground, so it pops.
That was one of the reasons why I chose this too. One of the reasons that I chose this particular ground was to make sure that my main area of focus, the mug, the orange mug, would contrast, and vibrate, and react to the complimentary ground of purple. Secondaries are all complements of each other, and secondary colors are on the color wheel, purple, orange, and green. They all react to each other with the most intense vibrancy.
Other sets of opposites would also be a primary blue across from orange, purple across from yellow, and green opposite on the color wheel of red. When you keep those in mind, especially in choosing a ground, you want the reaction, you think about, "What's my main area of focus? "What will react the most to it?" Therefore, the purple was a good choice.
I'm gonna try to keep my shadows more transparent than what's in the lit area, and all that I'm using here is just mostly warm tones, browns in the shadow and bright cadmium orange and red in the lit area. I have much more opaque color in the area of light and transparent color in the area of shadow. The reason why I'm doing that is because there's another level of contrast, opacity and transparency.
If my most opaque and transparent color are sitting next to each other on an object in the foreground, it's where the eye will go. Our eye tends to be drawn to the highest level of contrast, so you wanna make sure you control that in your scene. If you have something with really high contrast way in the background, the eye will go there, and that's probably not where you want it to go. In this case, we wanna create space as well, so we're trying to keep the heat in the front, the highest opacity in the front, that which will pop off the scene the most.
Those are things that will. Just darken up the shadow here a little bit. I have to look back at my scene. I'm gonna add a little bit of green to this brown shadow, and the reason why I'm doing that is green is the opposite of this orangey red color, and that'll increase the contrast of shadow to light. I'm focused on that here because I want this to be the very first thing the viewer looks at and is drawn to. In terms of subject matter, it's a key element to the piece because it's meant to symbolize the heart of the picture.
That's why it's red. When I think about having a cup of coffee or tea in the morning, especially early morning, it's warm. It's symbolic to me in this scene, and so I like that to be the most important element. If I had another red element in this picture that was the same color and intensity, your eye would bounce between those two objects. So I have to be careful how I set up the scene and what other colors I've used. I'm building up the value of the shadow of this object as well, and the reason why I'm doing that is because value is another element of contrast.
It's the one we understand probably the best, that if you have a high contrast of light and dark, the eye will go straight to whatever you're trying to define with that light and dark. The softer the contrast, it's like the last thing we look at. I'll save all the soft contrast for the background. Even the Eiffel Tower in the background will not be as high contrast as this mug. Otherwise, it would pop forward in the scene and it would deny the illusion you're trying to create. This is really probably the most important aspect of this is reducing contrast in the background to keep it soft, keep it back there.
I'm trying to also let the watercolor do some of the work here. What I mean by that is watercolor wants to move across the surface so I'm trying to let it, not let the color get too dry. I have to let those shadows define the shape of this mug so I'm trying to blend the color so it's not too hard a transition, so it doesn't look quite believable. I think that's a good base.
You can always go back in and tweak, and push, and play, but for right now, this will be a good start for the mug. Last thing I wanna hit on the mug is really those areas of a lot of light. One of my favorite parts of this scene is this little spot right here. I love that it's vibrant, and it's red, and there's this great shadow hitting that spot. What it's doing, and this is sort of more subtle composition with color, it's pointing you in the direction of the Eiffel Tower.
The angle of that shadow is directly like a line saying, "Look back there." Using diagonals in color for contrasting, and moving through the scene, and creating space is important. I tried to set this whole thing up so that your eye would angle back. I have lots of directional pointers. I'll point them out as I get to them. Typically, I try to also think of painting the largest areas of color or assessing the largest area of color. This was not the largest, but it's one of the most important, so I'm dealing with it first, but we can hit another area that's maybe a little bit bigger and also important, but not as important as the mug.
I'll just finish this area up. Once you have color on your brush, it's like any tool. You wanna complete that section before you go to the next, and I'm painting much more here about light and shadow. I'm literally using the paint both for the light areas and the shadow areas. Sometimes I block a flat shape and then go in with a light, either scrubbing it out or popping it on here. I'm doing both at the same time, more for expediency so you can see this develop. I'll work quickly.
I think a fun area to paint for contrast will be perhaps the ground, this green zone. I have a big shadow shape, and then I have the surrounding area. I'd like to do this sky, but I think I might do it in pastel because the sky that I see in my reference is so soft, that just feels like the right material, but if I do that, and I drag my hand across it, that won't work so well. So I think I'll leave that for right now.
Mary Jane uses the following materials in this course:
- Arches 140 lb hot press paper
- Tube watercolors - Winsor & Newton Cotman brand
- Paper stumps for blending
- Pastels - a variety of stick and pencil forms (including Conte pastel pencils)
- Short, fat, fine-bristle Winsor & Newton #2 and #4 brushes (for scrubbing color off)
- Sceptre Gold II sable/synthetic blend #3, # 6, and # 10 brushes
- Winsor & Newton Cotman brand 25 mm/1 in. flat brush (for washes)