On Contrast, Part 1 of 3

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The following is an expanded excerpt from my Brooklyn Public Library Lecture.

The heart of human perception is contrast. Through the comparison of various sets of information, our subconscious minds are able to construct a visceral model of the environment that enables us to navigate through it. But this benefit has its costs: because our sensations are based on relative comparisons, our subsequent interpretations are not absolute. One major consequence of this is that we are easily fooled by context.

My favorite example of this has nothing to do with vision, though the same principles apply. Let’s say you submerge one hand in cold water, and the other in hot, allowing time for each to adapt to the temperature. Upon touching the same object with each hand, you will feel opposing sensations: one warm, the other cool. This means you are the world’s worst thermometer—you have no independent scale for judging assorted values and are at the mercy of circumstantial evidence.

Mythos: Fantastic Four, page 17, panels 3, 4
acrylic and gouache on bristol board
11 x 17"

In this scene from Mythos: Fantastic Four, the Human Torch, flaming on for the first time asks, “Is it cold in here?” I’ve always liked that line from Paul Jenkins because it reveals the level at which he’s immersing himself in the situation. For someone who is burning (comfortably), the world must feel frigid, much like someone who is running a fever.

I bring up this image for another reason as well. I am often asked how I paint fire—how to make it glow. It’s all about context. By controlling the visual situation, I can let people know that white—the brightest option I have—means light. The surrounding gradient indicates the light’s color. Every other value in the composition is significantly darker. In my own nerdy mind, I call this the lightsaber effect. The light source (the blade) is the brightest value, surrounded by color, surrounded by dark of any kind. I've pixelated the following image in order to exaggerate and, hence, clarify the relationships among the color values.

The effect is further promoted through reflected light, as in the image of Yoda, below. This is why some of the human jedi in Star Wars movies might look a bit off: the glow is added in post-production, so no light is actually emitted from the blade; whereas the computer generated characters are appropriately lit (if poorly animated).


  1. It's fantastic that you describe your thought process and how you think about structuring your values:) Great post and I look forward to part2&3

  2. It's always bugged me that lightsabres never acted like light sources...they are glowing rods of light for cryin out loud!

  3. Thanks, Björn! I hope to have them ready for the following two Fridays.

    Michael—you are not alone.


Copyright © The Self-Absorbing Man
Design out of the FlyBird's Box.