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  • Writer's picturecarolyn land

More on Simultaneous Contrast

Simultaneous contrast is not just a curious optical phenomenon; it is the very heart of painting.”                               Josef Albers (German artist/educator; 1888-1976)

Last week I wrote about how everything in a painting is inter-connected, and introduced the term “simultaneous contrast”. Everything in our paintings: the lines, shapes, colors, and textures, have a relationship to each other, and affects its outcome. This art concept however, is just as true about things that happen in our life.  Each thing in our life has a relationship to everything that happens during it, and affects how we perceive it. That is why each viewer will have a different take on our work.  Life experiences determine how we perceive things.

Chevreul’s Color Wheel

Artists have always explored values and the the effects of juxtaposing complementary colors, even without understanding it in the neurophysiological term. It wasn’t identified until a man named by Michel Eugène Chevreul, noticed the intense effect two complementary colors had on each other when placed next to each other. (Complementary colors being those that are diametrically opposite each other on the color wheel.)  Chevreul went on to do much research in the field of color, and in 1839 published the book: “The Law of Simultaneous Contrast”.

Night Cafe in Arles

One artist that used complementary colors dramatically was Vincent van Gogh.  It is illustrated here in: “Night Café in Arles”. In this particular painting, he used red and green to accentuate each other.

painting by Hans Hoffman


Hans Hofmann noted how contrasting colors create energetic forms, which he famously termed as “push and pull”. Our color choices play an important role in creating that “push and pull” in our paintings; which brings interest to our work, and helps get our message across to our viewer.

I have written in the past about the “power of play”, and how it helps us learn how our medium of choice works, and how far we can push it.  It is also important, as artists, to play with color, so we understand how colors play against each other. To discover: what values and tones we can achieve by mixing hues with black and white, mixing complimentary colors together to see the various intensities of each hue, to see that when we place warm colors next to a cool color it looks warmer, and when we place cool colors next to a warm color it will appear cooler. The appearance of a color changes, according to its context.

We have all experienced being at a party when someone enters the room and suddenly, the atmosphere of the party changes.  Think of your painting as a party.  The wrong color choice can put a real damper on it.  The right choice, “wow”! You have a winner.

“When you cover a surface with colors, you must be able to keep the game going indefinitely, continually to find new combinations of colors which will answer to the demands for emotional expression.”              Pierre Bonnard

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