Part 2 Project 3 Exploring Contrasts / Successive contrast

For some reason I seem to battle with the instructions for some of these technical exercises.  The first part of Exploring Contrasts was easy enough. We had to choose any colour (colour A), then mix a series of several colours that are close in the spectrum to colour A. Paint a series of small squares of colour A, surrounding it each time with one of the colours you’ve mixed. This was to show how colour A alters each time in relation to its surrounding colour. And when colours that are not opposite each other on the spectrum (not complementary) are seen together, they cancel each other out. I used my Winsor & Newton Promarkers for this part of the exercise. I have also got a lot of examples of this phenomena in two or three of my own art colour reference books, so I understood this part of the exercise okay.

exploring colour contrasts

The second part of the exercise I found a bit difficult to understand from the instructions (below in italics, with my pert comments): –

Now try mixing a colour and its complementary ( i.e. the opposite colour on the colour wheel) ..

okay, straight forward, say red and green (opposites on the colour wheel). 

… Paint a small square of the brightest of this pair of colours …

don’t get it – I’m only doing one pair of colours – red and green – unless I’m supposed to go around the colour wheel doing colour/complementary sets/pairs of colours …??

…Now paint around this colour

What colour – the border colour I suppose??

… with a larger square of this colour’s complementary

? So for my red and green set, green’s complementary is red, so do they mean paint around this green with red?

… made equal tonally by the addition of white.

?So add white to the green ..

What do you notice?

Crikey.       So I have a red square, surrounded by a green square, surrounded by a pale green border.  Is that right?  What do I notice? I’m frustrated, that’s what I notice.  The instructions continue.

Working either with the same or a different pair of complementary colours …

So, I’ll use the same example – red bit in the middle, green border.

… paint a square frame in each colour side by side.

Huh?  So I paint a red frame and a green frame next to each other?

Leaving a square gap in the middle of each.

There’s a bit in the middle that’s blank, yes.

Now paint a similar square of white underneath …

Underneath what?   Underneath the square frames I’ve just painted?  In the middle of the square frames?

again leaving a square gap in the middle.

Blank. Don’t understand.

Mix a neutral grey or beige colour …

Easy enough.

And fill each of the central squares with this colour.   Take care not to let the colour in the centre mix with the surrounding colour.  Notice how the appearance of your neutral colour alters.

Then an illustration is provided, which in my addled brain does not tie up with the instructions.

Image from course notes

Long story short, I asked for some help on the Facebook OCA Painter People page and a couple of fellow students came to my aid, but I was still not completely sure I was doing this thing correctly. I had done a few of my own tests before getting some guidance from the FB group.

Once I realised that a) my ground paper should have been painted in a neutral grey and b) I just needed to work on one group of colours to begin with (i chose yellow/blue violet) things began to make sense. I also looked at crimson/ultramarine.

contrasts on grey ground

Adding white to the complementary colour and placing it next to the main colour, knocks them both back (neutralises the contrast). Then the last part of the exercise ended up looking like this :

colours with beige neutral colour in centre

The beige appears to pop when it is surrounded by white and also yellow – but that’s maybe how I see it. I don’t think we all see colour the same.


I have a colour wheel on my wall that I suspect is technically incorrect. It shows the complementary of scarlet as light blue.

colour chart

However on a primary colour wheel in one of my reference books, this is shows the complementary of primary red is green. I think this is why I was having a few problems with this exercise. I have a lot of different colour wheels, so I’m going to pin the below one to the wall in future.

Primary colour wheel

Successive Contrast

For this exercise a large solid red dot was provided below the course notes and it was therefore not necessary to paint out a colour to do the ‘science’ bit of this exercise – i.e. staring at the colour for 30 seconds to see its complementary colour when the eyes are closed. Also I used the colour dot to do the second part of the exercise, where we stare at the image of the red dot or square for 30 seconds and then look onto a white sheet of paper – again the after image is seen. In both cases the colour I saw was a neon-green. We learn that these effects are caused by the stimulation and exhaustion of colour receptors in the retina. By exhausting the receptors for red, only the remaining combinations of colours that mix to produce blue green are seen when you turn from looking at red to looking at white.

I found another example in one of my colour reference books – which was a yellow block surrounded by its complementary purple and after staring at the pair of colours for 30 seconds, if you look away to a white paper, the colours are reversed and the yellow block surrounds the purple. Quite neat.

If I have time I will try and do some small paintings exploring colour contrast/colour intensity/color combinations.

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