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.

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.

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