Research point: Find out more about the colour theories of Chevreul and make notes on how particular artists have used Chevreul’s theories to expand the possibilities of painting.

Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786 – 188was a chemist working in Paris. He began his work on colour after he was appointed Director of the dyeing department at the Gobelins Manufacture in 1824. His development of the Colour wheel stemmed from the need to match dyes to threads.

He wrote The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colour which was published in 1839 as The Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast.

From reading the sources below my understanding is…..there are three theories…

Simultaneous contrast

“In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colours, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the strength of their colour. ”

This means that our brains are making the colours look more different than they are to “help” us see the difference.  This works when the areas are of significant size and actually touching each other.

This works for complementary colours particularly well, but also for hues as again the eye/brain communication will emphasise the difference.

Mixed Contrast

Two colours if looked at in succession the second takes on a hue of the complimentary colour of the first

Illustration of the effect can be achieved by looking at a red dot and then at a blank white page, and you will see a pale green dot.

Successive Contrast

The knowledge that if we look at one colour and then move to another there is an afterglow in the eye from the first colour.


Looking at how some artists exploit the colour theories


Henri Matisse  Olive Trees at Collioure, summer 1905

In this painting by Matisse, the colours are not realistic.  They are the correct colours, but exaggerated.  By doing this he has emphasised the difference between the trees and the background and foreground.  Features stand out against complimentary colours next to it as the tree on the right’s red branches agains the green foliage of the tree behind and the purple ground colours agains the use of yellow to hint at shrubs or sunlight.




Wassily Kandinsky. Munich-Schwabing With The Church of St Ursula 1908


This Kandinsky painting does a very similar thing.  The complimentary colours next to each other make each feature pop out to the eye.




Two pictures by Renoir above which take two different uses of the theories.  On the left  The Skiff (La Yole), 1875 . This places complementary colours of the boat and the lake right next to each other, intensifying both.  On the right is Lakeside Landscape and here the whole pictures has tones of pinks and reds throughout having the effect of “successive contrast” giving an afterglow of pink , therefore suggesting a warm twilight.