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.

Color Temperature and The Super Color


One of the most difficult phenomena to discern is color temperature. Many contemporary paintings are primarily cool or primarily warm but when one observers some of the great paintings of the masters there is a wonderful balance in temperature. Robert Henri states in The Art Spirit that, “the effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors, and the oppositions of grave colors with bright colors. If all the colors are bright there is no brightness.”(p.57) The same could be said, if all the colors are cool ( or warm) there is no luminosity and the “living” element seems to be missing.

As part of my practice before I begin a painting, I seek two things- an overall color temperature map and an idea of the super color. First I identify the super color. By super color, I refer to that overall color that encompasses the subject and the space. It will influence all the individual colors of the objects- it is the primary color of the light, the identifying color of the entire composition. Henri describes it as such, “there is a color over all colors which unites them and which is more important than the individual colors. At sunset the sun glows. The color of the grasses, figures and the houses may be lighter or darker or different, but over each there is the sunset glow.” (Ibid.,p.58)

Identifying the color of the light itself will influence the color temperature of the subject. So when I map out the color temperature, I always keep this in mind. If  I am working under north light, I might observe the following: the general light is cool ( violet, blue or cool green) so the pattern might be- lights cool; half tones warmer; shadow edge cool; shadow warm; reflected light cool; and the highlight being a mirror of the source itself will be cool. Other things to remember are that reflected light mimics the general light source and contrary to this- the reflected light that occurs when illuminated flesh reflects back into the shadow area is warm; and where flesh meets flesh, that dark accent will also be warm. This map reflects my belief that we must first have an understanding of what can happen and then seek through observation of a specific situation what is actually occurring before us. It is difficult to see what one has no knowledge of. One must merge what one knows with what one sees. My friend, Deane Keller wrote in The Draftsman’s Handbook -“Theory- the way things should work- must submit to the way things actually work- but both make their contribution.” (p.25) When one has knowledge of  scientific phenomena, then one can look for it in nature. When one does not fully understand what occurs then it is difficult to observe it. How many landscapes were painted prior to Jules Breton or Monet that did not recognize blue shadows (the reflection from the dome of the sky) in nature?

Observation is key to recognizing the variations in color temperature. The map is theory and must submit to nature but it remains an important expression of the variety necessary to achieve “luminosity” and a sense of the “living” element.