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.

The Artists’ Concern for Analogical Relationships

The word “analogy” is used quite often by artists and poets to describe comparable relationships between images, objects and ideas. It also includes those relationships that exist between colors, lines and tones. In the 19th century this concept of equivalency or likeness of relations was in the air. It shows up in the work of Charles Baudelaire as “correspondence,” Eugene Chevreul as “‘complementaries,” Robert Henri as “analogies,” and Alfred Stieglitz as “equivalents”. The “golden section,” “dynamic symmetry,” and “rebatement” also fall into this realm of ideas. This search for phenomena that supports the artists own experience of balance and harmony in nature mirrors something that lies within the imagination of the artist. The  imagination seeks its counterpart in one’s experience in the world. It seeks to give what appears fleeting some permanence. Ibn’Arabi calls this place of meeting the “isthmus”- the place where the imagination meets the world as an image in a mirror, one reflecting the other in an analogical way. The artist intuits these real relationships between what lies within and the world without and he seeks phenomena to verify his feelings.

Because of this inherent need of the artist to find an insight into the greater forces at work behind his fascination with visual phenomena, there is a constant dialogue that takes place between the artist and his own work as well as a dialogue among other artists and writers. Georges Seurat in his published letter to Maurice Beaubourg, August 28, 1890 states that, “Art is harmony. Harmony is the analogy of contrary elements and the analogy of similar elements of tone, color and line, considered according to their dominants and under the influence of light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations. The contraries are: For tone, one more clear (luminous) for one more dark; For color, the complementaries, that is to say a certain red opposed to its complementary (green), ect.; For line, those forming a right angle.” (Joshua Taylor, Nineteenth- Century Theories of Art, p.541) Seurat’s fascination with analogical relationships, in regard to color especially, lead to the movement of Neo- impressionism. Robert Henri refers to these ideas as valuable stating he has read Signac’s book on Neo-Impressionism in french and there is much to glean from it. (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.60)  Although Henri never fully accepts the Neo-Impressionist idea of a full division of color, he obviously is in tune to Seurat’s idea of “contraries”. Henri’s attraction to Seraut rests particularly with color. He has previously explored H.G. Marratta’s analogical relationship between color and musical chords and Denman Ross’s color and value analogies in regard to planes. It is not surprising that Seurat’s concept of “contraries” intrigues him.

Henri constantly searched for a real relationship between what he painted and the process of painting, itself. Painting should entail in a very real way some quality of the subject beyond the specific conditions of the light.  This is where color came to take up such a fascination for him. Color became a tool by which Henri could describe his subject in an analogical way- that color could describe the character and the emotional state of the subject far more clearly than the pure skill of rendering accurately. Although, Henri’s portraits are clearly rendered with feeling and accuracy.

In Henri’s late work- the Irish portraits painted in the last years of his life-one can see the great unity he achieves.  His subjects are simple and pure- like a Gallic ballad or a line from the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Henri honors “his people” and seeks to find the analogical means that will mirror this beauty and simplicity. His color analogies of “3 or 5 set against the complement” become the method he chooses that in a real way reflect the mystery of his Irish subjects. The emotional content of the image finds its practical and analogical relationship in a simple palette- the inner life finding its isthmus to the world.

An artist needs to foster this intuitive feeling for analogical relationships and seek the means or methods necessary to join them to one’s subject forming an image that goes beyond the mere descriptive. But Henri also adds a warning to this:

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive…it would be far wiser to develop creative power by constant search for means particular to a motive already in mind, by studying and developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or emotion which has moved you to expression.You will not only develop your power to see the means, but you will acquire power to organize the means to a purpose…You will become a master and organizer of means, and you will understand the value of means as no mere collector of means ever can.” (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.220)