“Simultaneous Contrast” is a common optical illusion that affects our perception and hinders our drawing and painting progress.
If you compare 2 adjacent values (right next to one another and touching), you will struggle to see how dark or light they really are, because the difference between them will be artificially amplified.
This optical illusion can be a barrier to being able to accurately judge the darkness or lightness of values. It can lead to reflected light being too bright, and exaggerated contrast in smaller areas of interest, leading to a weaker drawing overall.
These natural errors of perception go unchecked when the artist stares at a very small area and tries very hard to see what value or color something is. It will often feel confusing: You will think at first you need to darken an area, and then a few minutes later, or a day later you will disagree with your earlier decision and lighten it again.
This can result in a lot of erasing and the whole process of creating a drawing or painting will feel like an exhausting struggle. More like a battle than a creative endeavor!
If any of this sounds familiar, I suggest a few steps to follow to solve the problem:
Monitor your own experience. If you start feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or confused, sometimes we think that means to try harder, or work harder, when actually the opposite is true!
Take a break – even just one minute to go get a glass of water. Look out the window for a few minutes to help your eyes to focus on the distance. Take several regular, even breaths while you look out the window.
Return to your easel and look at your subject. Don’t draw, just look. Look at the whole thing, not just the area you are working on. Look at the large shapes. Look at the darkest darks, and the lightest lights.
Now, look at your drawing. Look at the large shapes, the darkest darks, and the lightest lights. Look at the area you have been working on, and compare that area to the darkest darks, and the lightest lights of the whole subject.
Notice what you feel: Do you feel more clear about what to do next? Do you feel re-inspired and excited to improve your drawing, or do you feel frustrated/tired/confused?
If you feel re-inspired, start drawing again. If you still feel frustrated, take a longer break, or leave the drawing alone for a day or two, and follow the steps again when you return.
Try to break the habit of staring at small areas. Every drawing and painting problem can be solved by remembering to scan your eyes across the entire subject regularly.
What’s the best way to train your eyes to scan?
I recommend my students do at 10-day block-in exercise to re-train their gaze: Up to two hours of block-in a day for 10 consecutive days. If they miss a day, they add another day to the end.
This exercise leads to enormous break-throughs. After about 5 days your neural pathways start to re-wire. And at about 10 days the new pathways start to feel more comfortable than the old pathways. A new habit is born and new neural pathways are created. Just like when practicing a musical instrument or perfecting an athletic skill.
This new habit, scanning your eyes instead of focusing on small areas, helps with drawing shapes, identifying values, and even making better color choices when painting. It literally solves every problem!
Here is my PDF hand-out explaining the block-in exercise.