Research point: Chevreul

We are asked to look into the colour theories of Michel-Eugène Chevreul and how artists have used his theories in their paintings.

The following extracts are paraphrased from:  Leland, Nita Confident Colour North Light books, Cincinnati, Ohio.  Ms Leland provides examples of many colour theories in her book, including Delacroix’s colour triangle,  Ostwald’s triangles, Albert Munsells’ colour tree, the colour systems of Josef Albers and Johannes Itten.

After Newton’s discovery of the spectrum, nearly a hundred years elapsed before scientists became aware of the relationships on the colour wheel.   In 1756, J. C. LeBlon described the primary nature of red, yellow and blue.  LeBlon noted that primary colours cannot be mixed from other colours but are used to mix all other colours.      Moses Harris printed the first colour wheel in full colour ten years later.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Michel-Eugène Chevreul observed the effects of colour juxtaposition in tapestries made for Louis XVIII, whose tapestry works he supervised.   Chevreul spent years analysing these effects, then wrote The Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colours published in 1839 in France.     His groundbreaking work influenced J. M. W. Turner and Eugène Delacroix.

Simultaneous and successive (or mixed) contrasts are colour effects based on visual sensation and perception.  Chevreul’s studies revealed that colours tend to influence each other because of the way our eyes see them.     Simultaneous Contrast occurs when a hue throws a barely perceptible case o its complement onto the edges of adjacent colours.  A subtle suggestion of a line that appears where none exists.  Successive or mixed contrast occurs when a colour is viewed immediately after exposure to another colour.  A complementary afterimage will, for a short time, slightly alter the second colour being viewed.

There are some interesting conversations in the book ‘The Impressionists, by Themselves’  between various artists especially Pissarro in his correspondence with others relating to Chevreul’s theories.  I found two examples:

p.186  Camille Pissarro to Paul Durand-Ruel    (6 November 1886)

I want it well understood that it is M. Seurat, an artist of great worth, who was the first to have the idea and to apply the scientific theory after having studied it profoundly.   Like my other colleagues, Signac and Dubois-Pillet, I only followed the example given by Seurat …


To seek a modern synthesis of methods based on science, that is based on M. Chevreul’s theory of colour and on the experiments of Maxwell and the measurements of n. O. Rood.   To substitute optical mixture for mixture of pigments.  In other words: the breaking up of tones into their constituents.  For optical mixtures stirs up more intense luminosities than does mixture of pigments.

p.207  Camille Pissarro to Lucien Pissarro   (23 February 1887)

…This morning I received a letter from de Bellio.  He writes that he does not believe scientific research into the nature of colour and light can help the artist, neither can anatomy nor the laws of optics …

But surely it is clear that we could not pursue our studies of light with much assurance if we did not have as a guide the discoveries of Chevreul and other scientists.  I would not have distinguished between local colour and light if science had not given us the hint; the same holds true for complementary colours, contrasting colours, etc.  ‘Yes.’ He will tell me, ‘but these have always been taken into account, look at Monet.’  It is at this point that the question becomes serious!

Another book in my possession is Techniques of the Impressionists.  Explanations of Chevreul’s theories are dotted throughout.  I list the following from p.63:

… They were aware of the influential colour theories of Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) and they experimented with the effects of colour contrasts.  These are strongest when colours opposite each other on the colour circle are placed side by side.  The artists used such complementary contrasts as a means of enhancing their representation of the atmospheric effects of light and colour.  Thus a cream ground, showing through a loosely painted blue sky, with roughly scumbled white clouds, results in an optical effect of warm, glowing sunlight.   The warm cream would be enhanced – made to look warmer and pinker – by the adjacent blue, which would appear correspondingly cooler.  Cream showing through the cloud areas would add an airy effect of warmth.

The Beach at Trouville 1870 – Monet  (Image from Bridgeman Education)

Colour contrasts and juxtapositions of warm and cool colours were also used to evoke form without recourse to conventional tonal modelling.

The Lake at Annecy 1896  – Cézanne (Image from Bridgeman Education)

Simultaneous contrast image above from Wikipedia

From Wikipedia – discussing Orphism:

One of Robert’s [Robert Delaunay] biggest influences, besides his wife, was the chemist Eugène Chevreul. Most famous for discovering margarine, Chevreul delved in dye chemistry as well as the aesthetics of simultaneous contrast of colors. He had three main ideas to his color theories: “when complementary colors are juxtaposed, each appears to be more intense than when seen in isolation” and “if there is a perceptible difference in dark-light value between the two colors, then the darker will appear to be even darker” as well as that “all colors present in the field of vision at the same time mutually modify one another in specific ways”. Chevreul influenced many artists because he understood scientifically what many artists expressed instinctively.

Simultaneous Contrast image above from Graphic Art Blog

There are some good videos on YouTube explaining Chevreul’s Simultaneous Contrast theory.  Philip Tyler   Merv Moriarty


Leland, Nita Confident Colour North Light books, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Howard, M (Editor), The Impressionists by themselves  Chancellor Press

Callen. Anthea Techniques of the Impressionists Greenwich editions, Quantum Books 2004

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