On Contrast

by Helen Barker

Later paintingEarly painting

2015-03-04 16.25.12

Later painting

On re-reading Martin Constable’s article ‘On Contrast’ in Turps Banana Issue Fourteen, I found myself considering the values of my painting (in many senses of the word) this week. Values: hue, saturation and lightness as a way to chart colour, offer changes in intensity and quality which determine the way an image is not just read but found. Constable discusses two categories of contrast in which an image might be found: local contrast and global contrast. Local contrast (the contrast of one thing with another) suggests that everything is something because of its relation to another thing; “a blob of colour on an artist’s pallet may be considered as existing in a state if suspended animation, waiting to be related to other blobs of colour within a painting”.

When painting this week I found the brushstrokes from my pallet knife forming an ever morphing dialogue with one another as each simple form related itself to the other. A sweep of blue became a wave when pressed against a knife-edge of white froth. Against my instincts – which were to keep a sequential narrative of blocks, abstracted from the origin of their taking, not particularly readable but somehow mysterious in their flat, painted state – I found the values of my painting shifting into focus and assuming a more readable, obvious state. From a position of interest in the quality of the paint itself I moved to the readable presentation of contrasting forms that soon became a seascape. Suddenly a seascape. How did this happen? The danger of contrast is, perhaps, that the eye must seek out a form from a formless face and, in the words of Captain Picard, “make it so”.

Global contrast, Constable notes, is determined across the whole painting – “the contrast of all the values in that painting understood or expressed as a singular”. It relates to the finished aspect of the painting, observing the values of lightness and saturation according to the whole spectrum present in the final image. Histograms are used to determine values but are “blind to how values are spatially distributed”. With this in mind, my week of painting seemed well informed by the global contrast of a painting which seeks to funnel all the highs and lights of its content into a crack in the central part of the landscape. Spatial distribution was certainly on my mind when, as the image chose to form itself, I noted that the contrast of the darker blues with the lighter yellows made for a more dramatic, intense experience. A romantic, broody sky emerged through the global contrast of my finished, painted, fact. In his article, Constable goes on to quote German theorist Rudolph Arnheim: “a configuration of colours will strive either toward contrast or toward assimilation”. I wonder if my fear of assimilating the more unknown, abstract qualities of my earlier painting into one another has led me to contrast them rigorously into an identifiable image.

Is an image found out? Can it be stopped and prevented from being found out or will the eye always seek pictoral meaning?

Final paintingFinished painting