What Is Simultaneous Contrast in Art?

Color Changes Based on Other Colors

Example of Simultaneous Color Contrast
Example of Simultaneous Color Contrast. ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Simultaneous contrast refers to the way in which two different colors affect each other. The theory is that one color can change how we perceive the tone and hue of another when the two are placed side by side. The actual colors themselves don't change, but we see them as altered.

The Origins of Simultaneous Contrast

Simultaneous contrast was first described by the 19th century. French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul explained it in his famous book on color theory, "The Principle of Harmony and Contrast of Colors," published in 1839 (translated into English in 1854).

In the book, Chevreul systematically studied color and color perception, showing how our brains perceive color and value relationships. Bruce MacEvoy explains the approach in his essay, "Michel-Eugène Chevreul's 'Principles of Color Harmony and Contrast'":

"Through observation, experimental manipulation, and basic color demonstrations practiced on his coworkers and customers, Chevreul identified his fundamental "law" of the simultaneous contrast of colors: "In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition [hue] and in the height of their tone [mixture with white or black]." 

At times, simultaneous contrast is referred to as "simultaneous color contrast" or "simultaneous color."

The Rule of Simultaneous Contrast

Chevreul developed the rule of simultaneous contrast. It maintains that if two colors are close together in proximity, each will take on the hue of the complement of the adjacent color.

To understand this, we must look at the underlying hues that make up a particular color. MacEvoy gives an example using a dark red and a light yellow. He notes that the visual complement to light yellow is a dark blue-violet and the complement to red is light blue-green.

When these two colors are viewed next to each other, the red will appear to have more of a violet hue and the yellow more green.

MacEvoy goes on to add, "At the same time, dull or near neutral colors will make saturated colors more intense, though Chevreul was not clear about this effect." 

Van Gogh's Use of Simultaneous Contrast

Simultaneous contrast is most evident when complementary colors are placed side by side. Think of Van Gogh's use of bright blues and yellow-oranges in the painting " Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles" (1888) or the reds and green in "Night Cafe in Arles" (1888). 

In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh described the cafe that he depicted in "Night Cafe in Arles" as “blood red and dull yellow with a green billiard table in the center, four lemon yellow lamps with an orange and green glow. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens.” This contrast also reflects the "terrible passions of humanity" the artist observed at the cafe.

Van Gogh uses a simultaneous contrast of complementary colors to convey strong emotions. The colors clash against one another, creating a feeling of uncomfortable intensity.

What This Means for Artists

Most artists understand that color theory plays a very important role in their work. Yet, it's essential to go beyond the color wheel, complementaries, and harmonies.

That is where this theory of simultaneous contrast comes in.

Next time you're choosing a palette, think about how adjacent colors affect one another. You might even paint a small swatch of each color on separate cards. Move these cards over and away from one another to see how each color changes. It's a quick way to know if you will like the effect before putting paint to canvas.

-Edited by Lisa Marder

Sources

MacEvoy, B. Michel-Eugene Chevreul's "Principles of Color Harmony and Contrast." 2015.

Yale University Art Gallery. "Artist: Vincent van Gogh; Le café de nuit." 2016.