Art Glossary: Simultaneous Contrast

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

Definition

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

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

In his book Chevreul systematically studied color and color perception showing how our brains perceive color and value relationships:

"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]." (1)

Also Known As: simultaneous color contrast, simultaneous color

Rule of Simultaneous Contrast

Chevreul developed the rule of simultaneous contrast that maintains that if two colors are close together in proximity, each will take on the hue of the complement of the adjacent color. The example given is that "if a dark red and a light yellow are seen side by side, the red will shift as if mixed with the visual complement of light yellow (dark blue violet), while the yellow will shift as if mixed with the complement of the dark red (light blue green): the red will appear shifted toward violet, and the yellow toward green...At the same time, dull or near neutral colors will make saturated colors more intense, though Chevreul was not clear about this effect." (2)

For a more detailed explanation of Chevreul's discoveries, see Handprint: Chevreul.

Van Gogh's Use of Simultaneous Contrast and Complementary Colors

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, as in Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles (1888) or reds and green as in Night Cafe in Arles (1888).

 

In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh described the cafe that he depicted in the painting 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.” The clashing colors were also meant to express the “terrible passions of humanity” found in this all-night haunt, populated by vagrants and prostitutes. (3) 

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

Updated by Lisa Marder 3/28/16

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REFERENCES

1. MacEvoy, Bruce, Michel-Eugene Chevreul's "Principles of Color Harmony and Contrast," http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/chevreul.html, last revised 8.1.2015

2. Ibid.

3. Yale University Art Gallery, http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/12507