3 Ways to Use Visual Counterpoint in Art

By Dianne Mize in Art Tutorials > Painting Tutorials

For ages artists have found parallels between visual art and music. The technique of counterpoint is no exception.

Although counterpoint is a strategy most closely associated with music, Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinski discussed using it in paintings in 1911, in his work Concerning the Spiritual in Art. And even before Kandinski mentioned counterpoint, it had been used for centuries by artists as a natural way to find balance and create emphasis in a painting.

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Some people limit the definition of counterpoint in art to “opposing directional angles” and this is certainly one way to use counterpoint effectively. However, the word “counterpoint” actually means two opposing ideas working in harmony, and in art, this can come from any set of contrasting elements.

Three counterpoint strategies:

Artists are always inventing new ways to use counterpoint in their paintings, but here are three traditional strategies that have been used for centuries:

1. Counterpoint with contrasting directions

Diagram of counterpoint lines in art

On the left, a vertical line uses an opposing horizontal for balance and stability. On the right, a 2 o’clock diagonal line uses a 5 o’clock counter for the same purpose.

2. Counterpoint with complementary colors

Illustration of red-on-green counterpoint (complementary colors)

Painters often choose a complementary color scheme to create emphasis, and this is also a form of counterpoint. In the simple diagram above, the color green is used to counter (and emphasize) it’s complementary color, red.

3. Counterpoint with value contrasts

Black, white and gray squares to demonstrate value-based counterpoint

Areas of extreme contrast can be countered by similar-value areas. The gray shapes above counter the extreme contrasts of the black and white shapes, thereby enabling the black and white shapes to become a focal point for the viewer.

Examples of counterpoint in paintings:

In this little watercolor study, Pat Weaver has chosen to depict a seated figure. By countering the vertical thrust of the figure with the horizontal dark shape of the bench, she gave balance (and interest) to the painting.

Sketch of a woman wearing a hat, sitting in the sun

Pat uses a similar counterpoint strategy with diagonals in another watercolor, entitled Man on Bench. This time the angle of the torso is counterpoint to the waist line, as is the left arm with the crossed leg.

Painting of a man sitting cross-legged and cross-armed on a bench to illustrate counterpoint through composition

Often nature itself will give us what we need to create a counterpoint composition. In her watercolor painting, Poorhouse Road, Cathy Johnson has made use of the red barn to counter all the green in the surrounding trees and pasture.

Painting of a red barn on green fields (another counterpoint illustration)

Where Johnson found counterpoint in complementary colors, Jennifer McChristian found it in value contrasts among value similarities.

Painting of a woman in a white coat against a dark wall

In One Cantaloupe Left McChristian uses strong value contrast seen in the white of woman’s jacket and hat against the very dark surrounding areas.

There are other points of value contrast, all around, but the areas of highest contrast form the focal point of the painting.

It is surprising the extent to which using counterpoint can add intrigue to our paintings. As you can see in the examples above, moments of counterpoint are often right in front of our eyes waiting to be captured and utilized.

Look for it in your own subjects—you might be surprised at what you find.

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