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Research Point 3 – Chevreul’s Colour Theories

The brief for this research point was to find out more about Chevreul’s colour theories. And make notes on how particular artists have used Chevreul’s theories to expand the possibilities of painting.

Law of simultaneous contrasts of colours

New to  Chevreul’s theories I began scanning the internet for more information, I came across a really interesting paper written by philosopher and art historian Georges Roque in which he describes Chevreul’s ‘law of simultaneous contrast of colours’ and how particular artist’s such as Delacroix, Claude Monet, Paul Signac and even van Gogh have used his theories.

Chevreul was appointed Director of the Dyeing department of Gobelins manufacture and after 4 years of colour research he wrote a memoir to be read at the Academy of Sciences about the influence two colours can have on each other when seen simultaneously. Due to lack of reliable colour plates his main book on the subject “On the law of simultaneous contrast of colours and on its applications to…”, was delayed 11 years and wasn’t published until 1839. Published with the book was a striking list of all the areas to which is law could be applied including tapestry, clothing, horticulture, stained glass windows as well as painting.

His research into the laws of simultaneous contrast came about when the weavers at Gobelins made a complaint against the dyers in the Department of Dyeing which Chevreul directed. The complaint was that they were not producing the required depth of colours in the black dyes. Chevreul realised that the fault lay not with chemistry but it was a problem of psychophysiology; the brains perception of colour when the black was seen next to other colours.

In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colours, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the strength of their colour.– M.-E. Chevreul.

Meaning in order to perceive two colours better, the brain has a tendancy to exaggerate differences. Chevreul’s law works for lightness as well as hues which can be seen in the next exercise Mixing Grey’s – anachromatic scale.

Chevreul’s law of contrast came together through his awareness of the existence of complimentary colours. If the brain exaggerated the two juxtaposed colours this meant they would be perceived to be  more different than they actually are with the brain adding to the juxtaposed hue a little of the complimentary colour to that hue and vice versa.

Neutralizing the complimenting effect

Chevreul was asked testify in a trial between a wallpaper manufacturer and a customer who complained that the grey pattern in the wallpaper grey looked reddish whilst the manufacturer claimed it was perfectly grey. Chevreul proved both to be right by isolating the grey, then to neutralize the complimenting effect he suggested adding a small part of the colour of the background to the grey.

Chevreul concluded that when the two hues that are juxtaposed together are complimentary such as a green and a red, the two complementary colours enhance each, the red will look redder and the green will look greener. This law was critical for painters who wished to predict the intensity and harmony of colours when  juxtaposed together.

Chevreul’s influence on artists

The only painters interested in Chevreul’s theories up until the 1880s were those looking to enhance their colour. Looking for a recipe to give more intensity to their colours, these artists ‘adopted accordingly what they called erroneously “the law of complementary colours”.’Georges Roque.

One of the first of these was Eugene Delacroix who made the following mnemonic which he would use would use for his painting.

Chromatic triangle of Eugène Delacroix, 1834,

Chromatic triangle of Eugène Delacroix, 1834,

A prime example of this is Delacroix’s ‘The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. 1840 in which he used his colour triangle, structured by three pairs of complimentary colours and this can be especially seen in the flags, one of which is blue with orange motifs, another is yellow on a violet ground and the two on the ground on top of each other are of juxtaposed complimentary colours, red and green.

Eugene Delacroix , The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. 1840. Oil on canvas

Eugene Delacroix , The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. 1840. Oil on canvas

The influence Chevreul’s theories had on impressionist painter Pissaro could be seen in the way he framed his paintings, applying ‘the law of complementary colours’ at a 1877 exhibition by choosing white frames so that they did not interfere with the exact tonal values of the colours in his paintings. A few years later when he wanted to enhance the colours, he opted for slightly colouring the stretches with the complementary hue of the dominating colour in his paintings.

Monet claimed he was not one to ‘theorise’ in his paintings but in an interview hewas quoted as saying “primary colours look brightest when they are brought into contrast with their complementaries”, is awareness of the laws of simultaneous contrasts of colour can be seen in ‘Poppies at Argenteuil, 1873’ in which he took the opportunity to place spots of pure read against the more dominant green.

Claude Monet, Poppies at Argenteuil, 1873

Claude Monet, Poppies at Argenteuil, 1873

Unlike the impressionists who claimed they weren’t colour theorists the neo-impressionists from the 1880s onward realised how much of an important role colour science played in their paintings. Artist and theoretician of neo-impressionist movement, Paul Signac visited Chevreul in 1884, and in 1885 returned to visit Chevreul’s assistant at Goeblin’s, Emile David, who he is thought to have visited with George Seurat. as like other neo-impressionist painters who have acknowledged Chevreul, Seurat himself mentioned Chevreul amongst his sources.

Both Signac and Seurat As for Signac, ‘optical mixture’ where instead of being mixed on the pallete, dots of complementary colours are interposed directly on the canvas in order to applied the principle of frequently interposed small dots of complementary colours in order to increase
the luminance in their paintings, these dots of colour are meant to be fused by the eye when seen from a distance which produces a third colour, different from the
two juxtaposed hues.

Paul Signac, The Breakfast, 1886-87

Paul Signac, The Breakfast, 1886-87

Van Gogh got aquainted with ‘the theory of simultaneous contrast’ through art critic, Charles Blanc’s interpretation of Chevreul’s colour theories. He was so enthusiastic after reading Blanc that he copied out a passage of his book in a letter to his brother.

However because of van Gogh’s supposed madness, his use of colour in his paintings has been analysed by doctors rather than by art historians and he was diagnosed as having ‘xanthopsia’ or yellow vision due to his apparent overuse of yellow, but when his paintings are examined carefully the yellow never stands alone and his always along other colours usually against violet, it’s complimentary colour.

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

 

 

 

 

Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Irises against a Yellow background

Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Irises against a Yellow background

Click to access Chevreuls%20Law%20F1%20web%20good.pdf

Transparent and Opaque 3 – Opaque Colour Mixing

Some pigments have greater opacity than others without the addition of white and some can be laid on thickly to cover layers underneath, but white is essential for building body colour and is the vital ingredient for most opaque painting techniques. In this exercise, you’ll paint graded tones by mixing in white. Look carefully at your tonal mixes and put some white on your palette or saucer. Choose at least three of the washes you’ve painted (including the single colour ones) and attempt to recreate exactly the same colour, shade and tone of each of these in turn. This time, though, you’ll be mixing colours by adding in white, making the paints opaque.

Over-painting with acrylic works well because it dries so quickly. However, subtle, smooth colour blending is harder to achieve and that is the aim of this exercise. You’ll have to work fast at blending the graded tones of each colour by adding more white progressively or you could go from light to dark. Acrylic paints tend to dry darker than when they are applied so this exercise will help you to see how they behave. If you’re working with oil paints, you should be able to blend the colours with ease.

One way to blend colours is to lay out broad bands of colours to be mixed and gradually feather the tones across each other so that they blend smoothly and evenly. When you’ve completed this exercise, compare the effects of the transparent colour mixes (from previous exercises) and the opaque ones. Think about ways in which both methods could work together. Make notes in your learning log.

Due to the fact that I live in a one-bedroom apartment and will be doing most of this course using acrylics I decided to go with acrylics for now, but I am hoping I can get to use some oil paint in the same way later on in this course.

My first attempt was pretty good although my first band of blending went totally to pot as I grabbed a Titanium buff by accident in a hurry going home from work, I am not sure what a buff is for, I will look into later but I will make a wild guess at toning down bright colours…

In this first attempt which was on one of only two of the only 300 gsm sheets of watercolour paper I had left I attempted to was intending to recreate the tones of the first single colour blend, ultramarine.

I couldn’t really see much difference between the transparent wash in the Tonally Graded wash Exercise, except maybe the transparent washes were probably smoother. However, the colours in this exercise were probably more vibrant.

1stTry with Wrong White

1stTry with Wrong White

The next attempt was on a thinner sheet of watercolour paper on the back of one of the existing washes treated with Gesso but still the bands of colour blends were a success. This time even better than the first go. I have had previous experience at this on one of my own paintings from years ago where the ultramarine towards the top of the sky was very dark as though it was almost touching space, but the colour wasn’t blended as well as these. With the white space between the bands I can imagine the trail of  fighter jets against the blue sky.

2nd Attempt Getting Better - Warped Paper due to Gesso on Thin Paper

2nd Attempt Getting Better – Warped Paper due to Gesso on Thin Paper

I felt that I had got where I needed to be as far as blending the ultramarine so my next attempt was to try and recreate the Violet wash, again the colours were more intense than in the Tonally Graded Washes exercise but not as smooth. Next to the blue bands the Violet seems alot more opaque. I used the other side of the same brush so there is a hint of Ultramarine at the top of the colour bands, this actually looks quite good.

 

3rd Attempt with Ultramarine and Violet

3rd Attempt with Ultramarine and Violet

From there I worked length-ways across the paper to blend the two colours together althought the ends are quite messy the blend of colour which I achieved by feathering one colour over the other is not too bad, I can work at this but I feel that the Overlaying Washes were a lot smoother and easier to achieve as to blending these two opaque colours.

4th Attempt Blending Ultramarine into Violet

4th Attempt Blending Ultramarine into Violet

Thesecond attempt working down the paper in landscape was a lot better maybe because the paint at less time to try, it was 30+ degrees heat here and the acrylic was drying quickly.

From there I loaded my palette up with lots of ultramarine an attempted to recreate the spherical wash of the base of the Vase in the Painting Monochrome Vessel Assemblage by Brian Irving Shown in the Coursework.

5th Try with Spherical Blend

5th Try with Spherical Blend

After researching Mark Rothko I really wanted to try painting something in the style of but I realised that I would have to make two very dilute mixes of colour to cover the quite large sheets of acrylic paper that I had at hand and so keeping to opaque colour mixing I attempted to blend as many different colours together as possible, I then separated the colour bands with Payne’s Gray to see what emotions I could evoke with this against the bright colous.

6 - Blending Different Colours

6 – Blending Different Colours