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The Principle of Contrast


Explanations > Perception > The Progression of Perception > The Principle of Contrast

Principle | Discussion | So what


When we look, listen, smell, taste or touch, contrast is the first thing we seek in order to understand what we are sensing. If we can find contrast, then we can find some thing.


A basic principle of contrast is that the higher the contrast between two items, the easier it is to visually separate them. Notice how much easier it is to see the orange circle against the blue on the right in the image below, as opposed to the fuzzy blue circle on the left.

A secondary principle is that two areas each of different contrast may be perceived as separate things. In the image above, the orange circle is more separated and could even be imagined as a sun against a sky.

Faced with a blank wall, our eyes desperately hunt for something to latch onto. Contrast is about difference. When placed in time or across space, it is about change, which is the amount and suddenness of difference. It is the transition from nothing to something, from light to dark, from one thing to another.


Contrast is at the root of all perception. If we do not detect change then we perceive nothing. There is an apocryphal tale of a frog, placed in a gently warmed pan of water that eventually gets boiled alive. Yet if the frog is dropped in hot water it will leap out. When the frog cannot contrast the temperature increments, it does not realize it is getting hotter until it is too late.

We use contrast to perceive in other senses as well as our visual sense. We hence contrast loud and quiet sounds, hot and cold temperatures, bitter and sweet tastes, and so on.

Without contrast our senses wander, seeking anything of contrast to latch onto. Without contrast, such as in a dark night, we may hallucinate, creating our own perceptual contrasts. Put a person in sensory deprivation tank and they will soon start seeing and hearing things (and the longer they are there, the more real these imaginings become). Perhaps this related to imagination and dreaming. In the dark of nights or daytime musing, our mind needs to perceive something, so it just makes things up.

So what?

An implication for any form of art is to use contrast to reveal and separate objects. The general principle of understanding contrast is hence critical for artists, photographers, graphic designers, visual merchandisers and more.

Another implication is that if you want to use camouflage to hide, you should ensure that it blends in with its surroundings. This, for example is why many small birds are brown so they do not stand out against the earth below them.

See also

How the Eye Detects Light, Contrast principle


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