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Value Contrast – Stage 2

What’s out there in terms of  making the best of value contrasts?

At this stage, I explore a bit how other illustrations/images use contrasts of value as the predominant composition tool. In the end, I highlight what I believe are the most interesting stuff, conclusion-like (you may cheat and go to the end right now).

The best example out there that I know is Sin City, by Frank Miller. This comic, deeply influenced by Film Noir, uses almost entirely the contrast between big areas of black and white, with the occasional inclusion of a few colors, to represent shape, texture, and emotional burden.

It makes good use of the technique of blacking things out to make the reader’s imagination tingle. The next pic is an awesome example.


Source (modified)

The most interesting things I notice:

  1. Black out. The face is all dark, except the eyes and some minimal white areas. It gives the character plenty of intent. The shapes are very simple but at the same time very powerful. Exceptional art does not mean a lot of detail.
  2. Suggest. The mind can understand shape and texture from minimal details. There are two prominent examples. First, look at the hand in the background. We understand perfectly that this is a hand, however it’s only a black shape without inner details. Subtle bumps give perfectly the idea of fingers. The weapon is also perfectly understood thanks to very small “steps” along its shape. The second example is the brick wall. We understand it without problems thanks to the little gaps, and its slight irregularity. The unconscious automatically imagines the brick of walls on seeing the picture. And it’s basically nothing more than a huge black shape without any texture inside.
  3. Discontinuous contrast. Contrasts don’t need to be continuous separations of value to define shape effectively. Look at the bottom of the foreground arm. It’s basically black, like the coat below. The arm and the coat, however, are clearly separate elements. Frank does this with the white lines (folds in the coat). The folds on the coat are “cut” by the arm, which in its lower part does not have folds. The separation between black and white happens only on the folds, but the brain interprets it as a continuous contrast. I like to call it autocompletion function of the brain.

More Frank:


Source. A whore in Sin City.

  • The shuriken-earring: high contrast edges to define shape. Nothing else is needed here. It is irrelevant whether shurikens are black or white.
  • Bare shoulder. Here autocompletion works again. The little gap where the shoulder is bare does not make it difficult to define its shape. It even gives sensuality.
  • No shadow in the neck cast by the head. Although the hair subtly suggests the shape of the chin.

Source. And even another Sin City whore. Wait, are there women who are not whores in this city?

  • Hair. I like what Frank did with the hair here. The texture is resolved only in the black/white edges. The shadow (the black part) of the hair has the double purpose of creating the illusion of volume, and defining the shape of the head and neck.
  • Shoulders. Autocompletion. Whereas the hair and the shoulders merge, it is easy to distinguish the shape of the shoulders.
  • Again, no shadow in the neck cast by the head.
  • The texture on the dress to define the sensual volumes of the body is nicely executed. These lines do not cover the entire dress, only what is needed to represent the volume. Frank uses not only the direction, also the thickness of the white line to highlight particular volumes. And look at how simply the hand gloves are represented.

It looks like, in such pictures, less is more.

Now, my highlights:

  • Black it out. Use black, pitch dark shadow to add expression. Example: face in black.
  • Suggest, instead of defining everything in the picture. Example: Define an element only with its outer shape.
  • Discontinuous contrast. Contrast between two elements to distinguish them can be eliminated in certain places, and the elements will still be distinguished.
  • Minimalistic texture. Define texture on the contrast edges.
  • Minimalistic shadows. Example: No shadow cast by the head on the neck.
  • Bonus: He does not use grey at all. Just white and black. Again, minimalism.

Of course, all this can be applied or not. But the art by Frank Miller is pretty spectacular, and he very clearly masters contrasts of value. Bluntly said, copying him does not sound like a bad idea.

I guess the next step will be trying these techniques by myself.