Studies in Simultaneous Contrast

M.E. Chevreul, Experiment on Complements using Colored Yarns, 1839.

Simultaneous contrast refers to a phenomena whereby juxtaposed colors interact with one another to produce a change in their visual appearance. This interaction was studied by the French scientist M.E. Chevreul. Chevreul’s theories are elaborated in his book, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors. This treatise has influenced almost every painter from the 1840’s until the present. It includes such diverse painters as Delacroix, the French Impressionists, Seurat and the Neo-Impressinists, Robert Henri and the Ashcan School as well as Josef Albers and the Bauhaus School and Abstract Expressionism.

Robert Henri became acquainted with Chevreul’s theories by reading Chevreul’s published work in France before it was translated and published in America. But Henri does not investigate simultaneous contrast thoroughly until he meets H.G. Maratta, an American color theorist, in 1909. Maratta published a small pamphlet where he expresses how simultaneous contrast and harmony of sequence factor into his development of his color theory and the pigments that he was marketing as The Maratta Scales of Artists’ Oil Pigments, 1916. It is a dense little booklet and deserves a thorough read. Maratta provides experiments to support his own theories and tie them into Chevreul’s. This week I revisited these experiments and I would like to share them with you.

The studies I conducted focus around the color orange. First, I examined the relationship between an orange tint (orange at full intensity + white) and the scale of orange: From full intensity to Bi color to Hue to neutral. Remember these are variations on orange juxtaposed against an orange tint (plus white) from the same scale.

Orange tint juxtaposed with various mixes from the orange scale.

Although, the viewing of these studies are best observed from life, one can still see how the vibrancy of the tint changes slightly. As the orange color increases in intensity juxtaposed next to the tint, the tint itself appears less vibrant and cools to a certain degree. This coolness occurs because the more intense orange is casting its complement blue into the neighboring tint. Whereas at the top, the darker orange Hue on the left and the orange neutral on the right add vibrancy to the orange tint. The most beautiful juxtaposition occurs at the upper left- orange tint/ orange Hue. Below this, middle row, the orange tint is juxtaposed against orange Bi color and orange Bi color + white. The left version is more effective because the deeper value of the orange Bi color creates more contrast with the orange tint as opposed to, the right version which is a higher value with white added. This is also one of Chevreul’s discoveries-to create a greater harmony, there should occur a contrast of value and intensity between the colors.

Harmony of contrast between Orange and various mixes in the scale of Blue.

Let’s examine harmony of contrast taking the direct complement to orange, blue. In this study I mixed orange color + a touch of white (to add opacity) to create an orange of high intensity. I then juxtaposed various mixes from the scale of blue. All the orange mixes are the same except for the upper right mix- this I deepened in value.

At the bottom left the orange is juxtaposed against a blue Hue and on the right against a deep blue Bi color. These 2 mixes had the most vitality and interest, especially the deep blue Bi color. These juxtapositions allow the orange full capacity to glow. The middle row- a blue at full intensity+ white (left) and a blue Bi color + white both tend to take the vitality out of the orange and leave it duller. Top row- The left mix of orange and a blue Bi of greater intensity seem to arrest each other and the viewer can’t make up their mind which color is more dominant. The right one is more successful because I have changed the value between the orange (making this deeper/darker) and the blue Bi + white (making this lighter and therefore more neutralized). The orange dominates this juxtaposition.

Simultaneous contrast is most effective if the relation between the juxtaposed colors also includes a contrast of value and intensity. Maratta states,”A contrast of color such as this which at the same time is a contrast of intensity and in value seems to be the happiest form of association in which contrasting colors may engage.” [H.G. Maratta, The Maratta Scales of Artists’ Oil Pigments, 1916, The Palette Art Co., NY]

Orange Hue tint juxtaposed next to various mixes from the orange scale.

In this study, I took orange Hue + white to create a neutralized tint of dull orange. This I juxtaposed against orange mixes of different intensities. Observe the color temperature changes. As the juxtaposed orange mix gets deeper and less intense, the orange Hue tint becomes warmer. As the juxtaposed orange mix increases in intensity and value, the orange Hue tint becomes cooler and slightly grayer. The increased intensity of the juxtaposed orange color throws some blue back into the neutralized orange tint. The value change of the orange mix in the lower right, appears more interesting, even though the neutral is cooled, because the contrast of value adds vitality.

As Henri mastered the effects of simultaneous contrast and harmony of sequence, he was able to juxtapose colors in such a way as to vitalize the surface of his canvases creating a living, moving organism of color transference. What makes these effects so stimulating is that they are not mixed on the canvas directly, but take place in the mind of the viewer. This adds an ebb and flow of movement that is illusive- just like ‘life’ itself. This effect cannot be captured by the photograph, but calls the viewer to engage directly with the image.

I found this to be especially true with Henri’s late Irish portraits. Standing in front of these canvases and engaging directly with the color surface was compelling. Many of the colors on the canvases appeared not to be intensely laid down. But as one gazed at the canvases, color became increased and activated. Color choices in the background provided the face with an emanating or inherent light drawing your attention to the child before you. Henri could only have achieved these effects by careful study and execution. These effects are not blatant like the Bauhaus School, but subtle and beautiful- like capturing a butterfly and then setting it free in the world.

I will continue this exploration and focus on harmony of sequence in this month’s newsletter. Please sign up and confirm your subscription when prompted.

Building Up to Color

Judith Reeve, “Evening Light, North Branch”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of red and yellow hue.

I live in the Catskill mountains and December brings on the wonderful neutrals in the landscape. Not just the browns and grays, but the beautiful blue, yellow and red hues. These are neutrals that still maintain the character of the color that they are derived from. The distant mountains and hills are a series of subtle blue hues. The dead hay fields and scrub bushes are a series of soft, subdued yellows. And the dried goldenrod, briars and rough grasses bordering the fields are a dull red hue. Much of this is pervaded by a cool violet-blue cast from the sky. This time of year, it is rare to have an intense blue sky. We usually have to wait until it really gets cold and the sun begins to cycle back toward longer days.

Robert Henri is known for his vibrant color combinations set against a foil of semi-neutral tones. We take it for granted that he just boldly laid down his color in the intensity he intended immediately. This is true to some degree, but not completely. In the early 1920’s, Henri experimented with a new approach.

At this time, Henri sought to develop a palette that was completely permanent. Henri was not alone. There were many artists that were concerned about the quality of the pigments in artists materials. Post WW I, there was a cheapening of artist materials with new industrial processes. Europe had been devastated and much of the industrial west had suffered economically. So many of the pigments imported to the United States were of inferior quality and light-fastness and their pigment identification was questionable. Henri, along with H.G. Maratta and several other artists, formed The League of American Artists in order to create a handbook of “Artist’s Oil Pigments”. Henri was the main mover behind this investigation and a copy of this manuscript resides in Henri’s archive. It was proofread by George Bellows near its completion.

The reason I have added this historical data, is because Henri experimented with these permanent pigments and developed a method to incorporate earth tones and neutrals into his images in a new way. Henri referred to it as, “keeping down to color”. Henri would use,

“…strong grays in the half-tones and shadows. These modified in later painting… reserving for finish the higher notes.” [Henri’s notes to himself, Archive of Robert Henri, Yale University, Beinecke Library, Box 26, Folder 606, p. 24]

With this new method, Henri would strongly model the forms first with earth tones as well as, the hues from Maratta’s Spectrum Palette. These include the red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple hue. The primary hues are the root hues and the secondary hues are mixed from these. So, instead of a traditional under-painting in raw umber or ivory black, Henri would use the hues or a series of earth tones (such as Payne’s gray, Indian red, yellow ocher) to model the forms of the figure first and then build up to higher intensity colors to complete the image. This initial layer was not monochrome, but contained a low intensity version of the true color of the forms. These low intensity colors would also be of a lower value in this base layer. Low intensity and low value initially, then building up to full rich spectrum color in the final surface layer.

Judith Reeve, “Rising Vapor, December”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of blue hue in the distance.

In my landscape painting recently, I have begun using combinations of the red, yellow and blue hue to lay in the base of my coloring. Then, on top of this, I build up the more intense color on the surface, simultaneously allowing this color to mix into the initial layer or allowing it to remain a broken color juxtaposed against the initial lay in.

The combination of colors to create a hue need not always be the same. Each hue is made up of a mix of 2 secondaries (or tertiary combinations) such as blue hue= green + purple. But one can also vary which color combinations you draw from to mix the hue depending on how true a blue you desire. This is covered in some of my posts on a color’s scale as examined in the Triangular Palette. An example, for blue hue: rather than G + P, I could mix GB + P. This mix produces a cooler and bluer combo and comes between the hue and the Bi color along the color’s scale.

Judith Reeve, “Coming Front, December”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of blue, red and yellow hue.

What is interesting about these hues laid in as a base to the more intense colors is that this combination of pigments that are laid side by side or loosely mixed, produce an optical effect called gradation. This was an optical effect Delacroix utilized that was later optimized by the Impressionists. Gradation creates a sensation whereby, an area that appears as a single color field, is in actuality, composed of several variations of a color, shifting in color temperature, intensity and value.

In my next newsletter I will touch upon mixing the hues and several combinations that I found effective for winter landscape painting. Please sign up for my newsletter and become a member of the Attentive Equations community of artists.