Have you ever mixed a wonderful batch of color, then applied it to your painting and it doesn’t work? Suddenly it’s too dark, too light, too bright, too dull, yet when you mixed this color you were certain it was the perfect color for that area in your painting.
Or, you already have some colors applied on your painting that you like, you start adding more colors and surprisingly the original colors turn lighter on you? …or so it seems. Frustrating? Are you feeling a little nuts? I know that I have. What’s going on?
Are you familiar with simultaneous contrast? (Say it 5 times real fast and you might get a little tongue tied.) It is a visual phenomenon that seemingly plays tricks on us.
When you first heard the phrase simultaneous contrast – or if this is the first time you have heard it – did you shut your brain down because it sounds intimidating or complex or just plain confusing? I remember when I first heard the phrase, I rolled my eyes. The two words together didn’t make any sense in my pea brain. In addition, I questioned what role it played in my world as a painted.
Many years ago, when I first started studying color at the University of Minnesota, I was introduced to several important color principles. Simultaneous contrast was one of them. It was first identified by Michel Eugène Chevreul, a 19th-century French chemist. It refers to the way in which the colors adjacent to one another affect each other. In other words, an area of a painting is impacted my the other patches of color in its nearby space. One color can change how we perceive the hue of another when placed side by side. Do you need proof? I did. Let me show you some examples.
During my invigorating color coursework at the U of M, we had homework that consisted of painting several different examples of this visual phenomenon called simultaneous contrast. Below you see how a gray strip of color changes in hue when it is painted within an area of orange versus in an area blue. Compare the two vertical grays. Notice how the gray has been altered by its surrounding color. Within the orange the gray is cooler or bluer, whereas within the blue it leans toward a warmer gray. The colors themselves don’t change – I have not painted two different grays – but we see them as altered.
Why is Simultaneous Contrast Important to Artists?
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