Research Point: Colour Theories of Chevreul and How Artists Have Applied Them

13 & 14/04/15

Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786 – 1889)

Find out more about the colour theories of Chevreul and make notes on how particular artists have used Chevreul’s theories to expand the possibilities of painting.

French Chemist of extensive scientific achievements, of which I’ll concentrate on his theories of colour. As Director of the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris – a dye works, he received complaints regarding the colour matching of the dyes produced for tapestries.  Particularly of blacks which appeared different when next to blues for example.  Chevreul discovered that perceived colour, when next to others, changed according to the adjacent colour, he called this the Concept of Simultaneous Contrast.

After much investigating and experimenting and giving extensive lectures in the subject, he wrote the book The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours (published in English in 1854).

Chevreul’s findings influenced many things not least European art namely, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Orphism or Orphic Cubism.

Whilst researching M. Chevreul’s theories, I came across a paper written by Georges Roque 2010, called Chevreul’s Colour Theory and its Consequences for Artists – Published by the Colour Group (Great Britain) http://www.colour.org.uk 2011.

I have included a link to this paper, as it is, although lengthy, concise and above all interesting and readable.   http://www.colour.org.uk/Chevreuls%20Law%20F1%20web%20good.pdf

Some points I found particularly fascinating:

  • The eye deceives the brain (or is it the other way around) when viewing tones adjacent to each other.
    (See anecdote regarding a court case between a wallpaper manufacturer and wealthy client – one disagreeing with the other as to the reproduction of a grey in the design, one saying it is absolutely the correct grey, the other saying it had a reddish tint. Chevreul brought as expert witness deduced both were correct, in isolation, the grey was accurate, yet against the background colour (green), it did indeed have a reddish tint).
  • I tried the experiment mentioned regarding a red dot on white paper, in that when viewed for a period of time, a pale green (blueish green in my case) glow appeared around the red dot, and when one looks away from the red dot, a greenish dot is seen against the white of the paper. Being a tad pedantic, I also tried this with a green dot and lo and behold a pale pink (we can say pale red if you like) glow appeared around the green! Blue – Gave pale orange! Okay, I believe him that this is the origin of complimentary colours. It appears to be a natural phenomena that occurs due to how our eyes work!
  • Colour mixing can be with coloured light or coloured pigment.
    Colour mixing with light is additive and more pure, and when equal intensities of colour are mixed it produces white.
    Colour mixing with pigment is subtractive and less pure, and when equal intensities of colour are mixed it produces black.

How Particular Artists have Used Chevreul’s Theories to Expand the Possibilities of Painting

Again. Georges Roque’s paper is very useful and informative, it is the fundamental reason for his writing it.  Without being too lazy, I have used the artists mentioned and researched them in this regard.

Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863)

Almost 10 years ago I had the opportunity to spend the entire day, unaccompanied by a bored spouse, in the Louvre, Paris. My most memorable part of this mammoth painting viewing extravaganza, was the wonderful paintings of Delacroix.  They were strong in colour, brushwork, story and passion and often of shocking subjects, yet they were still easy to view. How did he do this? It seems from Georges Roque’s research, that Delacroix was very interested in Chevreul’s theories and lectures. He made a triangular diagram in a sketchbook illustrating the relationships of complimentary colours which he used to bring harmony to his paintings.  He was also adept at bringing mood and meaning to his images by his use of colour.  One of my favourite paintings from that day was The Death of Sardanapalus, this seems to have been painted prior to Chevreul’s lectures on colour harmony, however, shows his natural affinity with colour and maybe why he became so interested in Chevreul in later years.  Learning the reason why something works so well helps recreate desired results.

Camille Pissarro (1830 -1903)

The only artist spanning both Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist movements. Chevreul’s theories are often related to these styles of painting as they shared a desire to recreate the colour and luminosity of light in nature.  Pissarro, as did other Impressionists, used complimentary colours to give life and light to his paintings, using local colour in shadows to bring a cohesive and harmonious appearance. Keen to expand knowledge and push theories, Pissarro became close to Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and explored the practice of pointillism. Examples of the use of complimentary colours to bring vibrancy and harmony being Old Chelsea Bridge London 1871 (Smith College Museum of Arts), *Toit Rouges, Coin d’un Village, Hiver, Cote de Sainte-Denis, Pontoise 1877 (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), the Garden of Pontoise 1877 and Children on a Farm 1887.

*Translation: Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter, Cote de Sainte-Denis, Pontoise.

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891)

Credited with the creation of Chromoluminanism or Divisionism: Maximum luminosity, separation of colours, dots or marks that interact visually;
Pointillism: Dots of paint not necessarily with separation of colours.

Interestingly, Seurat also studied Delacroix’s use of colour. He believed that harmony and emotion can be evoked with colour – refer again to Delacroix. Seurat took the science available to him vie Chevreul, Charles Blanc (a French art critic, who took Chevreul’s theories and applied then specifically to art) and Ogden Rood (again looking at colour theory and its application in art, was an American physicist). Referring back to Georges Roque’s paper, he notes that art historian Robert L Herbert discounts the claim of optical mixing and it has had some negative criticism in more recent times, however, even if the eye doesn’t exactly mix the colours, Divisionism and Pointillism does offer a high degree of luminosity in paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

As the paper of Chevreul by Georges Roque specifically comments on Van Gogh’s colour techniques (using quotes from his letters to brother Theo re Bedroom in Arles 1888), I will not repeat his conclusions, but refer to how this brilliant man with a delicate mind used his colours to again describe mood and emotion. He seemed to feel everything deeply and his adoption of some of the techniques used by Seurat and Paul Signac with dots of colour, helped him put these emotions into his paintings.  It seems to me this was a natural progression for Van Gogh as he was a master of mark making in his bamboo pen and ink drawings that he should find a way to combine this with complimentary colour juxtaposition. He seemed particularly taken with yellow/orange with blue. See:

The Cafe Terrace 1888
Van Gogh’s Chair 1888
The Starry Night 1889
The Sower 1888
and on and on…

Paul Klee (1879 – 1940)

An artist I am not overly familiar with and worth my revisiting at a later date. As noted in my course notes he was an artist and a teacher within the Bauhaus movement. I haven’t yet found much information relating to his colour theories, however, I noted a similar vein of thought to that of Georges Seurat. Both refer to the emotion, expression, rhythm in colour and structure of drawing and painting in a similar way that a musician uses counterpoint in composing harmony in music.

I have finally found a paper written by Roy Osbourne called Colour School (Thoughts on the Teaching of Colour Theory)

http://www.coloracademy.co.uk/ColorAcademy%202006/subjects/education/education1.htm

This refers to Paul Klee, Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) and Joseph Albers (1888 – 1976).

In this link, Paul Klee refers to transparent colour mixing with watercolour – as crossed my mind when reading about colour mixing with light – does this refer to transparent colour? Although when mixed together, blue, red and yellow watercolour does mix to white but can some of the theory be applied – it certainly doesn’t mix to black???  No it refers to light and watercolour is pigment however transparent, I can see how confusion was caused – my head is spinning. Am now looking forward to the colour mixing exercises to answer and more than likely pose more questions.

Research via Wikipedia and Hints, Tips & Techniques, Colour Mixing Published by Winsor & Newton ColArt Fine Art & Graphics Ltd 1997. (Specifically The Terminology of Colour Theory)

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