Pastel Pointers | Simultaneous Contrast and the Backing Board

The same painting shown on a black Gatorboard panel and on a white Gatorboard panel.

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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5 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | Simultaneous Contrast and the Backing Board

  1. Jane McGraw-Teubner

    Hi Richard,
    About the phenomenon of simultaneous contrast…I just received my copy of AARP magazine and on page 55 there is a wonderful example of simultaneous contrast. It is a perceptual illusion demonstrated by MIT scientist Edward Adelson regarding how bad our brains are at judging absolute values. I was amazed!!! As Adelson says …we only see contrasts, not absolutes.

  2. John

    Can someone please tell me exactly what ‘Gatorboard’ is.
    I have a fancy it is merely polystyrene sheet, with acid free board glued to either side.

    Can anyone confirm please. We can’t buy this in the UK, but we can buy polystyrene and acid-free board. Which means if that is all Gatorboard really is, and it is robust enough for purpose, then I can make my own!
    Thanks in anticipation!

    I use Schminke, pastel primer if I paint on cardboard supports btw! Great stuff. Not cheap, but it has a lovely, toothy surface.


  3. Robert Sloan

    This is why it drives me nuts that so many galleries want white mats for paintings. It tempts me to invest in spacers rather than surround a painting with white – colors stand out so much better against black. It’s personal taste, just wish I’d find a gallery that shared my tastes.

    I know the white mats connect everything that’s for sale in the gallery and create a gallery look, but maybe using spacers is a way to deal with it. Trying to make it look good against white will leave it lacking intensity at least to my taste. Though it does make it easy to see the hues in the sky and see that you’re not using any actual white in the example painting.

    I use white less and less the more I paint.

    Robert Sloan

  4. Mike

    It would be interesting to see the image on the right (black background) but with a 1" white border around the painting itself. I use a black board when working, but use white Artist’s tape to attach the stock to the board. Perhaps this gives a reverse or similar effect of your trick of using black tape against a white board when nearly finished.