A Theory of Colored Edges

Robert Henri "Portrait of Pat"
Robert Henri “Portrait of Pat”

Scientific phenomena always intrigues the artist especially if that phenomena centers around optics. In a sense it is as Plato inferred that art achieves its effect through illusion. I have always been curious about the theories of Michel-Eugene Chevreul. His study of optics and the effect of contrasting colors directly applies to painting and can be used, when understood properly, to heighten the sense of color in one’s work. Practically all artists are familiar with his theory of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors– when two compliments are side by side divided by a small strip of white, the colors tend to heighten one another, but if they are directly next to each other, the compliment of each appears in the other and there is a slight neutralization that takes place and therefore the colors are somewhat dulled. He also observes that if one stares to long at an object one is painting, the compliment of that object appears on the retina of the artist’s eye and remains there for a period of time and if fact, dulls his ability to see his subject as it actually appears before him. Therefore it is important for the artist to periodically rest his eye from the subject so that he may see it more clearly.

These theories are more or less common knowledge, although we constantly have to remind ourselves in regard to them. But his most interesting theory on which much can be inferred is his theory of colored edges. Let us say we have a red object next to a blue object or background. The red object as it approaches the blue object will appear to shift toward the orange because it is the compliment of the blue and simultaneously the blue object will shift toward the green as it approaches the red because it is the compliment of the red. So this passage would progress as such- R-RO-O-G-GB-B. The point of transition between the red object and the blue object or background would be- O-G. I find this incredibly useful in painting to achieve a heightened sense of color but also a smooth transition between objects and between an object and its background. In regard to the figure, it is especially useful in transitioning a half-tone edge into the background without over blending (the most typical way to deal with this type of passage).

This same idea is useful when painting a halo effect- when the edge of the figure is luminous because it faces directly into the light source. Adding color to this area greatly enhances the sense of brilliance of the flesh-using the shifting sense of the opposing compliments.

In contrast, some simple effects along edges can be had by just using a neutral. On The Juxtaposition of Colored and Grey Substances, Chevreul states that if the grey (or neutral) is selected properly in regard to tone,  it will exhibit the phenomena of contrast of color in a striking manner-achieving effective results and a heightened sense of color with minimum means. As I wrote in previous blog post, this is especially useful in those illusive and mysterious transitional passages along the shadow edge, but also, can be effective along a luminous edge.

This same idea can be used effectively to design an entire composition and is one Robert Henri used repeatedly. An intense color will transfer its compliment to more  subdued areas in a painting. That is why it is important to carefully select one or possibly two colors that will remain in their true state because their compliment will take up residence in the more tonal or neutralized areas- a transference of  complimentary colors unexpectedly adding intensity to an area. This will occur in the eye of the viewer as he stands before the work and should be taken into account and taken advantage of.  Henri believed there was much to this.

While Chevreul’s theories are dense, these are some practical applications I have found.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

7 thoughts on “A Theory of Colored Edges”

  1. I noticed an effect on the neutral which is quite interesting. Take a triad of O, BG, V for example.. and bring the orange down until it is completely neutral. Surround it with violet on one side and blue green on the other. It looks warm.. perhaps orange, but I can’t tell. I kind of assumed that would happen, but what was more interesting was the way that other colours vibrated inside it. It appeared that the blue green was vibrating inside the neutral next to the violet and violet vibrating inside the neutral area next to the blue green. I guess you could explain it by saying that the grey was red next to the green and yellow next to the violet, but the overall effect was very resonant.. all colours amplifying each other… just like a chord. You can bring the orange right down through neutral into a blue and the effect remains strong.. just cooler. It can go up into the orange, but when the orange becomes too intense, the effect dies. It’s really interesting the relationship between the root of the triad and the other two. I keep wondering how to treat it. Do you use the orange sparingly like the soloist in a choir of blue greens and violets? If so, is it best at high intensity or actually better closer to neutral as this experiment suggests?. Or as you’ve written in some posts.. can the orange be used as a super/radiating colour throughout the canvas? I have noticed that placing too much neutralised versions of the orange next to a spot of it at a slightly higher intensity not only kills the effect, but is actually quite irritating… slightly dirty. Is that because I am still treating the orange as the soloist and lesser divas are getting in its way (so to speak)? If the orange was pervading or radiating the whole picture, would the effect change? I’m sure I’ll experiment and slowly work these things out, so please no need to reply or answer my questions unless you or anyone else feels the urge. I just thought it would be interesting to put these thoughts and questions down.

    1. I love your observation. Yes this is all true- Chevreul’s simultaneous contrast in paint. It is interesting to note that if, as you say, the orange approaches a neutral, these two other colors of the chord, V and GB interact in amazing ways. When v and G/GB are near enough to optically combine or relate, they become a semi-neutralized B or a B bi. This is the reason that they interact with the neutralized O. Radiating intensities are not meant to always reside side-by-side, which kind of reduces the effect of intensity in the orange. But if that O appears at several intensities within the composition,divided by other colors within the chord, the effect is much more striking. I am glad you are having fun with this. Henri always stressed time at one’s palette doing color experiments that may one day be incorporated into a composition.

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