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.

Palette of Nov. 2019

Near the end of the year it is always good to reanalyze some of the methods one has been using to see if one wishes to continue in the same direction. Over the past 18 months, I have been using Henri’s 50% Intensity Palette and it has worked fairly well. This is the palette where half the colors along the spectrum are at full intensity and half are at 50% intensity. I found this palette pretty easy to use with some good effects. It worked very well if the composition contained a large portion of colors in the middle to dark value range with the blues rather subdued.

But recently, I am trying a method where the middle tones are full of color with the highs neutralized with white and the extreme darks composed of a juxtaposition of 2-3 colors that optically appear as a near-neutral but contain full color. Think dark green and purple laid side by side and appearing at a distance as a subdued dark blue (Chevreul’s, Simultaneous Contrast of Colors). The 50% Intensity palette left the darks too neutralized to get this effect. Plus, I wanted a cool blue added to my more neutralized lights without appearing dull. These effects I witnessed last year at the Delacroix show at the Met and they are still haunting me.

Judith Reeve, “Night Thoughts”, 54″ x 32″, Oil, Palette of Nov. 2019

I also wanted a yellow I could use as a glaze. Presently, I had been using an azo yellow with a touch of raw sienna and viridian added to it. This works very well in the lights, but I am unsatisfied with it in the darks. I also found that Delacroix would often lay a yellow glaze over an entire painting and then proceed to paint into the glaze while wet. This technique unifies the image and sets the new tones comfortably within the composition tying it to the lower layer. He would also work his light strokes into such a glaze, keeping these lighter strokes very thin and semi-transparent. Only later adding a thick highlight.

So here is my new palette:

R– PR264 Permanent Madder (Rembrandt)

RO, O, OY– Mix of the Red + varying amounts of Yellow

Y– Cobalt Aureolin Yellow (Old Holland)

YG,G,GB– Mix of Yellow + varying amounts of Blue.

B– Ultramarine Blue French (W&N)

BV– Blue + Red

V– Blue + Red

VR– Red + Mars Violet (Old Holland) + Blue; the Mars gives body to the VR making it less transparent and more purple.

Palette of Nov. 2019
Bi Colors and Hues of the Palette of Nov. 2019

So far I have painted one major image with this palette and 6 smaller images and am quite satisfied with the results. It will also help me to get a greater range of color intensity with a chord or an analogy since one mixes the secondaries and tertiaries from the root notes of the chord. It works well with a lighter composition as well as a darker composition. The transparent quality of the yellows adds variety of effect. And the addition of Mars Violet to the purple range also creates transparent (PR264) and semi-transparent tones within the deepest darks. The only negative is that the cobalt yellow is expensive. But I seem to always have one expensive color in the primaries to add permanency. Last time it was cobalt blue. Before that it was cadmium red vermilion. All the other colors are inexpensive.

Hope you can try it out and let me know what you think.

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