I always thought that art and design was about contrast. At least I was told on many occasions in art class to increase contrast. In graphic design I was told on several occasions to reduce contrast. This has a good reason; the hero of any graphic design composition is the product, so it needs to stand out. One way to do that is to increase contrast in the product and reduce it everywhere else.
When I was walking through the Metropolitan Museum in New York (I’ve only been to New York once) I noticed that the art often consisted of fine blending of colours and tones. Generally low contrast. The light and dark areas are still there but there is usually a subtle blend between them. At first I discounted this as a characteristic of age (the painting not mine); but there are far too many blends to be an age related issue. I look at my own work and I see a lot of blending. This blending is subconscious in nature, I don’t really know where it came from. It’s not something I remember being specifically taught.
I’m going to do more conscious blending in the future. I believe that reality has much more subtle shade variations than we imagine, so more blending is required to achieve the reality-illusion. High contrast makes things pop but it’s not really a characteristic of reality. I’m going to be more judicious in my use of contrast. High contrast certainly happens but it’s not as common as many people think and there is usually a blend in-between. In photography the difference between the brightest part of an image and the darkest on film is about five stops. Three stops on a print. A stop is an order of two, so an increase of one stop is double the light. So 5 f/stops is two to the fifth power or about 64 times brighter. In addition to stops there is also exposure time. So the math is interesting but the final numbers are that the difference between light and dark areas that a camera is generally capable of exposing for are about 16,000 times. This assumes that a long timed exposure is not used.
I could have said that the difference in brightness between full daylight and starlight is in the tens of millions but I think the camera reference is more easily understood.
Humans can see in starlight (at least we can see stars) and full daylight but it’s enough to know that this is far more, by orders of magnitude, than we can show with paint on canvas. We can trick the eye and brain into thinking a painting shows more than it actually does. This may have a lot to do with the reality illusion. When we are looking at a natural scene our eyes need to adjust between the dark and light areas. With a painting our eyes don’t need to adjust. We can see detail in the highlights and in the dark areas at the same time. This may be why some paintings just pop off the canvas and look real to me. Even though I don’t know exactly why this happens I like it and strive for it in my own work.