The Law of Contrast
WE have seen that beauty springs from unity in diversity, and that unity results from processes of comparison wherein like is placed with like-like lines, or shapes, or colors, or significances-until the multiplicity of individual units is related to a few types, and of these types one becomes dominant. Yet, though this conforms to the law of its being, the mind, like a child at play, quickly tires of the same old types. It will return to them; it must know all the time that they are there; but for the moment its interest can be retained only by showing it something different.
Contrast, as an artistic principle, is the result of this necessity. It is a means of giving zest to decorative compositions which, however harmonious, would without it be insipid. It opposes curved lines to straight, plain surfaces to ornamented, light tones to dark, and warm colors to cold, and by this opposition gives the charm of vividness to each.
In this, of course, artistic practice merely conforms to the general law of life, since all our states, both physical and emotional, are intensified by contrast. Sunshine always seems more brilliant after shadow, tranquillity more grateful after excitement. It is indeed only through contrast that we can discriminate between one state or emotion and another. We can enjoy warmth only because we have known cold, and rest because we have known effort. We perceive form or out-line only where there is a contrast of hue or tone. We know smooth textures through contrast with rough, and warm colors through contrast with cold; while lines, shapes and colors are set off and their peculiar qualities made more marked through contrast with their opposites.
It happens, therefore, that in the effort so to select and arrange the furnishings of a given room as to make the room beautiful, the esthetic problem of the decor- ator is twofold. He must first of all ensure an easily perceptible unity through principality and the repetition of like elements, and he must also invest his room with a quality of interest and decorative charm through the opposition of contrasting elements. The contrasts chiefly employed will be those of hue, in which hues more or less markedly unlike are used together; of tone, in which relatively light tones are opposed to relatively dark; of purity, in which relatively pure colors are opposed to relatively neutral; of textures; of lines; of shapes; and of ornamented surfaces as opposed to plain.
Besides its esthetic importance, contrast appears in decoration as a physical factor, the operation of which is to make unlike elements seem more unlike. It is in the nature of our perceptive faculties that when un-like things are compared their unlikeness is accentuated. When we see a tall chair and a low chair in the same group the tall one appears to be taller than it really is, and the short one still shorter by contrast. A picture hung in the midst of a large wall space seems smaller than it would if hung in a small space; a long room appears longer if it is also narrow; a round mirror on a rectangular wall space is more striking than a rectangular mirror would be; pale colors appear more pale against darker grounds; hues more intense against their complementaries; and a richly figured drapery fabric gains in emphasis and distinction from being hung against a plain wall fabric.
Figures 18 and 19, taken from Lipp's Raumaesthetik und geometrisch optische Tduschungen, illustrate this physical effect of contrast. In the first figure the first and second lines are of equal length, as are the third and fourth, and the fifth and sixth; yet the second appears to be distinctly shorter than the first, and the fourth distinctly shorter than the third. In the second figure the two mean circles are of the same diameter, but through contrast with the two extremes the second is made to appear smaller than the third.