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Chapt. 1: The dance of light & shadow

Lesson 2:

Embracing contrast

In art just as in life, light and shadow are opposites, and at the same time they complement each other: that's what contrast is all about...

Here are some definitions of contrast:

  • "the juxtaposition of dissimilar elements (as color, tone, or emotion) in a work of art."
  • "the degree of difference between the lightest and darkest parts of a picture."
  • "the arrangement of opposite elements (light vs. dark colors, rough vs. smooth textures, large vs. small shapes, etc.) in a piece so as to create visual interest, excitement and drama."
  • "opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element's properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness."
Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.
— Junichiro Tanizaki

Light is everywhere. It is what allows us to see everything around us. It is dimensional, it gives depth to a scene or an object. When we do a sketch with a pencil or charcoal on paper, all there is at the beginning is light: the wide empty white space of paper. Then we add dark lines and a shape starts to appear. It is flat at first, but then if we "shade" it, by blending more dark with the white background, the drawing becomes dimensional: it comes to life! (by the way, it's also really fun to sketch in white over dark paper!)

Playing with contrast is one of my favorite ways to infuse light into a painting. I work a lot with white and soft neutral tones, but when I find that I need to bring more light into a piece, my go-to trick is to add some… darks!  Because this way I increase the contrast and the light areas suddenly seem more intense, light seems to glow from within.


Here are some of my favorite ways to achieve this effect:

  • Contrast some peaceful, very light areas with some strong, dark lines
  • Darken the edges of the piece to create a "vignette" effect
  • Make sure you have some very light lights and some very dark darks in your piece (in my paintings there is almost always some pure white and some deep black).


Check out the "Natural Light Palette" videos in the Resources section for inspiration!

Contrast is also achieved by playing with opposite elements of texture, color and composition.  Attention to the following can make all the difference if you feel that your piece needs an extra "pop":

  • smooth areas vs. rough, gritty, textured areas
  • busy, dynamic areas vs. empty space where the eyes can rest
  • small visual elements vs. larger elements
  • a unique element that draws attention vs. repetitive elements or patterns
  • thick layers of paint vs. translucent layers
  • sharp lines vs. blurred or "sketchy" lines
  • cool colors vs. warm colors

Inspiration warm-up

Photo discoveries: contrast is all around!

Grab your camera and start looking for contrast around you. Go outside or simply look around the room you're in! You can even turn on the "black and white" feature on your camera to reveal more contrast.

You can share your findings on Instagram with the hashtag #layersoflightart!

Also look for contrast between different elements: in textures, in lines and shapes… Once you start looking, you'll find them everywhere... For instance, the circle is one of the basic shapes I feel most drawn to. So I like to play a game of finding circles that meet straight lines:


Journal explorations: seeing with new eyes

Contrast in our lives sometimes allows us to shine our unique light more brightly (for instance, the idea to create this course came to me crystal clear after being really sick for over a week). But it's not always easy to acknowledge this, or to trust, while we're in the middle of a storm, that something good will eventually come out of it. Sometimes we need to look at things with new eyes, and it changes our reality.

Has there been a moment in your life that may have seemed dark at first, but has turned out to be a true blessing and a gift in the end?

Write about it in your journal, and let yourself be filled with gratitude!
You can also write about all the things that you feel grateful for, and shine a light on all the things that turned out to be blessings in disguise. How does it feel?...
Appreciation is the highest form of prayer, for it acknowledges the presence of good wherever you shine the light of your thankful thoughts.
— Alan Cohen

Pinterest Inspiration Quest

Create a "Contrast" board to collect contrasted images that you love, maybe some black & white photos… Check out l'Atelier on Pinterest, and in particular the following boards as a starting point for more inspiration:


2 minutes mini Abstracts

This is a fun little project that will get you to looooosen up! Here we play with white space and create contrast as we quickly fill the blank page with collage and marks. In this exercise you will:

  • make up your own set of rules
  • play with shapes and colors that you are naturally drawn to
  • practice intuitive composition
  • end up with a whole series of mini abstract works in less than 15 minutes!

Above all, the point is to practice the dance between structure and intuition, and to gather insights about your natural taste: after you're done, make sure to take a moment and look at all the pieces, take note of what you like and don't like about each one, and write it down (in your journal or at the back of each piece). This is valuable information to grow your own natural style! You can do this exercise from time to time and change your set of "rules" to learn even more from your own inner artist... Let's play!


What you'll need:

  • 6 or more pieces of thick paper, about 6" x 6" / 15 x 15 cm (heavy watercolor paper works great, cut a large sheet in 6)
  • Various scraps of paper (left-overs from the Soulboard from Lesson 1!)
  • Gel medium
  • Flat paintbrush
  • Pencil or pastel (I'm using my Stabilo All black pencil)
  • 2-minute hour-glass or stopwatch (can be a stopwatch app on your phone!)

Ready?... Go!

Main project

A winter's tale

This lesson is inspired by two favorite paintings (titled Winter Songs) that I created - believe it or not - in the middle of a hot summer. I am really more of a winter girl and so, on some of those really hot, really bright days, I created these soft and cool pieces (I created contrast for myself...)

I was longing for softness and tranquility, for the quiet, diffused, magical light of frosty winter days, and wanted to recreate it on the canvas. I love the subdued beauty of winter. Even without snow, the sky is often almost white, glowing through the dark net of interlacing branches. The bold, fiery colors of autumn give way to the subtle tones of dried leaves, bark, stone and earth...

One winter day, the queen was doing needle work while gazing out her ebony window at the newly fallen snow.
— Snow White’s tale

In this project we will be working mainly with collage and acrylic paint to achieve a deeply layered, soft but textured look.

NB: This is a first, in-depth project where I'm sharing a lot of my favorite mixed media techniques, and a lot of insights on my process. I hope it inspires you! But remember to always pay attention to what feels good and natural to you... as well as what takes you out of your comfort zone! Experiment and find your own twists.


    What you will learn along the way:

  • We are going to create contrast and emphasis with really light lights and really dark darks, as well as texture and line.
  • The monochromatic color scheme will allow us to work with different qualities of white and neutral tones, balanced with just a subtle dash of color.
  • We are going to create a simple but powerful composition with a black horizon line and strong focal point with a black and white image.
  • We'll indulge in some vintage-looking papers and a distressed photo to create a deep and poetic look.
  • And we'll infuse our words, thoughts and dreams into our art with intuitive journaling, using handwriting as a loose and beautiful graphic element.

What you'll need:

Basic materials:

  • Substrate: stretched canvas, wood panel or canvas board
  • Collage papers (book pages, printed text/photocopies, sewing pattern paper, scrapbooking papers, vintage prints, handwritten papers, natural fiber paper, kraft envelope...)
  • Black and white photo or postcard
  • Plastic card (old credit card...)
  • White acrylic paint
  • Brown acrylic ink or paint (I like to use Raw Umber)
  • India ink or black acrylic paint
  • Matte gel medium
  • Medium flat paintbrush
  • Small paintbrush
  • Water and rag
  • A variety of mark-making tools (shelf liner, bubble wrap, paint roller...)
  • Regular pencil (HB to 4B)
  • Black watersoluble pencil or pastel (Stabilo All pencil or Neocolor II)
  • White Posca and/or white-out pen
  • Black fine-tip permanent pen/marker (Pigment liner, Pitt Artist pen...)


  • Acrylic paints in neutral tones (but you can mix your own with the white and brown from the main list)
  • White pigment ink pad & stamps (this is really just for fun...)
  • Hydroalcoholic gel
  • Cotton buds or soft rag
  • Other black pens and pencils (ball-point pen, watersoluble graphite pencil...)
  • Palette knife

> Step 1: Getting started with collage

Start by covering the whole surface with papers in yummy neutrals tones.

> Step 2: A neutral background

"Age" the papers with brown ink and blend them together with paint.

> step 3: Layers of white

Bring the light forward with white translucent layers and mark-making.

> Step 4: Coming alive with black!

Add contrast with black, and structure with lines. Decide on your composition.

> Step 5: details & encaustic effect on photo

Bring it all together with beautiful and subtle details, journaling, and a touch of color! It's time to add your black & white image and give it depth with an encaustic effect...

> Step 6: finishing touches

Add a meaningful word of your choice and finish your piece!


I'd love to see what you create!

Please share your questions and creations below in the comments and/or in our Circle of Light Facebook group!

You can also share images of your creative process and the art you create in this class on Instagram with the hashtag #layersoflightart!

Diving deeper

Light-Bearer interviews

Read this week's Light-Bearer interviews, featuring two amazingly inspiring ladies: Meghan Genge and Sarah Treanor!

Meghan Genge

Writer, storyteller and magic finder...   Read the interview HERE

© Meghan Genge

© Meghan Genge

 Sarah Treanor

Photographer, writer and creative mentor... Read the interview HERE

 © Sarah Treanor

 © Sarah Treanor

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