Part Two – Research Point: Color theories Chevreul

Michel Chevreul (1786-1889), a french chemist was once commissioned by a french tapestry manufacturer to investigate the phenomena of fading colors and dull dyes. The cause seemed to be in bad dyes performance. What he found out was not a fading process but a color phenomena derived from a simultaneous color contrast from adjacent colored threads on the tapestry that influence each other’s color perception. He wrote this concept down in his book ‘De la Loi du Contraste Simultané des Couleurs ‘ (1839). This is based scientifically on the neurobiological phenomena of the retinal fatigue.

Chevreul designed a color circle with three primary colors (blue, red and yellow) and mixed secondary colors (violet, orange, green) and further color mixes in between. The six colors are placed in equal sixth on the circle with a tertiary color in between each of them. The 12 parts were than divided by six intervals. in total 72 hue incremental. All hues were placed in its most saturated form what leads to a tonal values difference as saturated yellow is lighter than saturated blue.



from: Roque, 2010



Before him J.W. Goethe (1749-1832), the german writer and scientist, already explained color interactions with simultaneous contrast and complementary colors.

Chevreul highlighted that the brain has a tendency to exaggerate differences in order to perceive them better‘ (Roque, 2010, p.4). Especially at boarders with two different hues and lightness differences occur.

This perceptional phenomena explored by Chevreul is the so-called Chevreul illusion‘ (see image below). The lighter bands juxtaposed to a darker band appear lighter and the darker ones darker. Although uniform in tonal value the bands are perceived inhomogeneous. This illusionary effect depends on the background as well. In case of an opposite tonal grading that illusion becomes much weaker. Quite fascinating is the illusion of grooves and not plane surfaces along one tonal value. The boarders seem to advance.


The effect of the luminance ramp background. Two physically identical Chevreul staircases of opposite progression were placed in a luminance ramp background. (Identical letters indicate the steps of physically identical luminance). It can be seen that due to the ramp, the illusion has significantly changed: The illusion ceases if the progression of the staircase is opposite to that of the ramp (upper staircase), while it is strongly enhanced when the progressions of the ramp and that of the staircase are identical (lower staircase).

The effect of the luminance ramp background.Two physically identical Chevreul staircases of opposite progression were placed in a luminance ramp background. (Identical letters indicate the steps of physically identical luminance). It can be seen that due to the ramp, the illusion has significantly changed: The illusion ceases if the progression of the staircase is opposite to that of the ramp (upper staircase), while it is strongly enhanced when the progressions of the ramp and that of the staircase are identical (lower staircase). (Geier, 2011)


With this said the Chevreul raised the question how exaggerated difference would be perceived with hues. His thoughts were based on complementary colours, at his time already know (since the observations by Buffon of ‘accidental colors‘ i.e. depending on the eye) and as visualised in his chromatic colour circle. Buffon observed that when focusing on a red spot on white paper after some time there will appear a pale green around the red spot. When looking on a white paper after focusing for some time on a red spot a similar spot in green will appear on the white paper.

Based on this ‘Chevreul thought … that two juxtaposed hues will be perceived as the most different possible when the brain adds to a perceived hue a little of the complementary of the juxtaposed hue, and vice versa.’ (Roque, 2010 – p.7)


from: Roque, 2010

Chevreul created the following image to demonstrate further the perceptional illusion with ‘changed’ hues when placed juxtaposed to different hues. The white pattern appears with a complementary hue to that of the surrounding background hue, e.g. on a violet background the white appears yellowish.

This color perception ‘shift’ could accoring to Chevreul be overcome when adding a slight tint of the background color to the pattern. That would neutralise the effect.

Another aspect highlighted by Chevreul was than when two complementary colours juxtaposed, e g. red and green, they will enhance each other. The green will be perceived greener and the red redder.

Another aspect is if one colour is juxtaposed with a second color that is close in space and time the complementary color of the second color will be perceptually mixed with the first color and vice versa. E.g. a light yellow side by side with a dark red leads towards a greener yellow (complementary of dark red is a light blue green) and a red with a violet hue (complementary of light yellow is dark blue violet). (McEvoy, 2015). Chevreul also observed that a neutral color juxtaposed with a saturated color will make the latter more intense. But he couldn’t explain this phenomena.

Based on the theory of complementary contrast is the concept of successive contrast that appear with delay in time (see at: Also known as negative afterimages.

Additionally to the complementary contrast, Chevreul described in his book also the concept of colour harmony. This was especially beneficial for artists who were searching for balanced colour combinations.


from: Roque, 2010

In total Chevreul summarised six color harmonies (McEvoy, 2015):

  1. Harmony of scale: a range of a pure hues across tonal values scale (wth white and/or black)
  2. Harmony of hue: a range of analogous hues with a similar tonal value
  3. Harmony of a dominant coloured light: a range of colours that mimics the appearance of contrasting colour by a coloured light i.e all hues are mixed with one additional colour
  4. Harmony of contrast of scale: a single hues with contrasting tonal values
  5. Harmony of contrast of hue: contrast of analogous hues by different tonal values
  6. Harmony of contrast of colours: by (near) complementary hues, also the contrast could be increased by differences in tonal values

Influenced by Chevreul’s theory were till the 1880s especially those artist who wanted to enhance the intensity of their colors. Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863) was one who tool great reference to it. With artists of the Impressionism tended to be less theory focused and more trusting their own eye, painting what they see in nature directly onto the canvas. Camille Pissaro (1830 – 1903) used Chevreul’s theory to a greater extent and applied the complementary contrast also in his use of frames. Instead of using the popular gilded frames he used rather white frames and later also frames painted in the complementary color of the dominating hue of the painting in order to enhance the chromatic intensity.

Also Claude Monet (1840-1926) used the theory in his paintings e.g. the ‘Poppy field’, 1873 (click here)


Mostly interested in color theory and Chevreul’s concept were the Neo-Impressionists who were looking to match colors observed in nature. Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) and Paul Signac (1863 – 1935)  were those two who went ahead with their approach toward Pointillism.

Working Title/Artist: Study for A Sunday on La Grande JatteDepartment: Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1884 photography by mma, Digital File DT1026.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 9_29_11

Georges Seurat ‘Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’, 1884 –


Paul Signac_Dining Room_1886

Paul Signac ‘The Dining Room’ , 1886-7 –


Both artists applied the concept of optical mixing, i.e. instead of mixing colors together they applied dots of single colours juxtaposed in order to achieve from a distance the illusion of one mixed colour. By that they intended to increase the luminosity of their paintings. With those painting a discussion went on related to color mixing and complementary contrast. The concept of complementary contrast and enhancement of the difference by juxtaposition of different hues works only by large enough color spots,areas. In case of smaller spots the effect is the opposite, called assimilation and an average and at times rather grey tone will be perceived.  The idea of optical mixing in order to enhance luminosity was to reduce the size of the dots so that the mixing of colors occur in the eye. Normally the colors should be less intense in those paintings. But in fact the applied color dots were still large enough and a optical mixing was only achieved partly. Thus the luminosity was retained (Roque, 2010 – p.19).

One artist who applied a systematic approach to color harmony and color complementaries was Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890).

Vincent van Gogh_Bedroom_1888_sm

Vincent van Gogh ‘Bedroom^, 1888 –

Van Gogh’s idea in this painting was to convey a ‘sense of rest‘ (letter to bis brother Theo no 554). This painting is based on the derivation of Chevreul’s theory from Charles Blanc (1813 – 1882) a french art critic and colour theorist. Blanc’s concept built on Chevreul’s but explained further the idea of broken colours (mixed with grey) and different states of energy (light and dark colour) in the creation of colour harmony. This was applied by van Gogh in this painting: colour complementaries (violet wall and yellow bed) and different colour intensities (lilac, pale violet).

In the 20th century and the evolvement of the abstract art movement Robert Delaunay (1865 – 1941) added to Chevreul’s theory the concept of colour vibration resp. colour movement: By that he meant that complementary colors vibrate slowly and adjacent colours (on the colour wheel) vibrate faster. By combining those into one painting colour movement would be enhanced and the painting to would become more dynamic.

Robert Delaunay_Circular Forms_1930

Robert Delaunay ‘Circular forms’, 1930 –

An artist who creates extended vibrating and pulsating colour paintings that build on the optical perception of colours  (Op-Art) is the british painter Bridget Riley (b. 1931). She explores extensively new optical effects.

Late Morning 1967-8 Bridget Riley born 1931 Purchased 1968

Late Morning 1967-8 Bridget Riley born 1931 Purchased 1968

Similar to Delaunay or Kandinsky Riley sees in her works a close relationship between colour painting and music.



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