The term “simultaneous contrast” was first used by French physicist Michel Eugene Chevreul to explain a phenomenon plaguing the dye works at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. The colors of various yarns were appearing to change from project to project for no apparent reason. Chevreul was able to ascertain that the yarn colors themselves were not physically changing, just the visual perception of them. He concluded that the visual perception of a color or value tone is profoundly affected by what lies next to it. This, along with other findings, was published in 1839 as “The Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast” and has influenced generations of subsequent artists.
The theory of simultaneous contrast is based on a fairly simple equation: simultaneously (occurring at the same time), something next to something else will affect it visually by its opposite. The more pronounced the contrast between the two areas, the more noticeable the effect. For example, a mid-value gray will appear lighter when placed next to, or onto, something darker, and it will appear darker when placed next to, or onto, something lighter. The perception of color temperature will also shift depending on what surrounds an individual color. For example, yellow will appear warmer (more orange) when placed along side blue; but it becomes cooler (more green) when placed in proximity to red.
Considering Contrast in Landscape Painting: As painters, this phenomenon can be the reason why a certain color, value or tone that worked very well in one painting will appear wrong in the next: The color itself didn’t change, just its surroundings. This situation comes up for landscape painters when attempting to accurately interpret the value range and color temperature within a shadowed and sunlit area of a scene. What is often identified as a light within a shadow mass or dark within a sunlit mass is considerably darker and lighter than first perceived. This has led many painters to embrace a simple rule: The lightest light in a shadowed mass is the darkest dark in a sunlit mass. Forcing oneself to follow this rule will set up the big value relationships in the painting and allow for additional minor accents of light and dark to achieve a desired outcome.
The perception of color temperature is similar in that it’s easy to associate a higher intensity color to either the shadowed or sunlit areas without considering the effect each will have upon the other once they are indicated in the painting. A good tactic for dealing with this is to decide whether the saturation of warmth in the sunlit areas or coolness in the shadows will be the strongest. If a more intense yellow, orange or red tone is utilized in the sunlit areas of a painting, a weaker grayed tone will appear cooler (bluer) in the shadowed areas, and visa versa.
Whether you apply the theory of simultaneous contrast consciously or intuitively while painting, it all comes back to a simple understanding that nothing is what it is until it has a relationship.
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