Anyone that works with me knows that I love to discuss the importance of the visual phenomenon of simultaneous contrast and the effects it has on our painting. In the mid 1800s, Michel Eugene Chevreul, a French scientist/chemist, identified simultaneous contrast as the manner in which the differences of two objects visually affect each other. This is most evident when they are opposites, such as colors that are across from each other on the color wheel, and extreme dark and light variations.
When painting, it is easy to focus on the object or area we are painting, forgetting that the adjacent areas have an effect on their final appearance (click here to read a blog on the subject from 2007). To summarize, what may appear dark or light, or warm or cool, to our eye can change dramatically once the surrounding areas are painted. This is one of the main reasons most artists recommend massing in the major value/color map for a painting in advance of laboring over individual areas. Simply stated, “Nothing is what it is, until it has a relationship.” What is a highlight in one area can become a shadow in another.
While simultaneous contrast plays its part in our perception of subject matter, it can also have an effect on how we perceive the painting’s appearance while working. Most of us adhere our pastel surfaces to drawing boards that are larger in circumfuse. This allows for a border to show. The value and color of that border will have an effect on the painting. If we apply the logic of simultaneous contrast, a darker border will make the painting appear lighter and a lighter border will make the painting appear darker. The color of the border would have a similar opposite effect on the color temperature of the painting. I have a system of using both black and white Gatorboard panels as drawing boards for my pastel paintings. When I notice that my pastels are becoming too light and washed out, I opt for a black Gatorboard panel. If they start to appear too dark and intense, I switch back to a white panel. This allows me to police myself. It is also of note that the tape used to attach the paper to the drawing board can produce the effect of simultaneous contrast if it is too colorful. My recommendation is a neutral tan tape for light drawing boards and black masking tape for a dark board. Avoid those bright green, blue, and purple tapes used by house painters, unless you plan to use a similar color when matting or framing.
Once you embrace the phenomenon of simultaneous contrast, you will see its effects everywhere. I am often reminded of the words of artist Josef Albers: “Simultaneous contrast is not just a curious optical phenomenon; it is the heart of painting.”
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