The science of art: The universality of the law of contrast

Noah N.N. Van Dongen, Josjan Zijlmans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Visual contrast appears to be an important factor in the appreciation of paintings. However, it has not been determined whether and how the effect of contrast differs between painting characteristics and whether and how it differs between people. We investigated whether the effect of contrast generalizes across cultures, variations in initial contrast levels (i.e., the amount of contrast in the digital reproductions of an original painting) between paintings, painting types (i.e., representational or abstract), and social and cognitive-aesthetic factors (e.g., age, education, art expertise). Our results indicated that people consistently favor high-contrast versions of paintings over their low-contrast counterparts; this effect is stronger for abstract paintings and paintings with a low or moderate initial contrast level; this effect is not influenced by culture, social factors, or cognitive-aesthetic factors; and surprisingly, the aesthetic value of digitized original paintings can be increased by increasing their contrast value. In short, we found empirical support against the universal importance of contrast in relation to painting characteristics but in favor of the universal importance of contrast in relation to people characteristics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)283-294
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Aesthetics
  • Art
  • Contrast
  • Culture
  • Paintings

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