Still life will be the topic through which the main focus will be on developing my understanding of colour. I do hope to revisit my attempts in the first part with the aloe in the glass pot, as I will end off this part with a still life.


The representation which the painter has to give of the lights and colors of his object I have described as a translation, and I have urged that, as a general rule, it cannot give a copy true in all its details. The altered scale of brightness which the artists must apply in many cases is opposed to this. It is not the colors of the objects, but the impression which they have given, or would give, which is to be imitated, so as to produce as distinct and vivid a conception as possible of those objects. -Hermann von ‘Helmholtz, “The Relation of Optics to Painting” (in : . .:
French, 1878), trans. E. Atkinson, 1881

I need to 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. The notes in the study manual refers to Michel-Eugene Chevreul as a French colourist who published a book, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Lolours and their Appliciation to the Arts in 1839 and go on to say that these theories had a great influence on the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionist and provided a basis for much of ehat has been taught in art schools since. Even the Bauhaus teachers like Paul Klee developed these theories further.

I did most of my research on the website of It seems that Chevreul’s was one of the first systematic studies of colour persception and design. He developed a hemishperical colour model to explain and predict the situations in which he observed colour contrasts. Interesting that his ideas was based on his own laborious survey and experimentation of colour effects used on coloured papers, yarns, glass and even older works of art One also need to keep in mind that by the time he did his studies, the work laid down by Leon Batista Alberti (1436) and complementary contrast were already known to artsits. Below are colour systems by Pythagoras, Aristotle and Newton. Interesting information I found on the webpage is: ” An interpretation of Pythagoras’s teachings, which maintained that the root of all harmony was to be found in the positions of the planets between the earth and sphere of fixed stars; the linear arrangement of colours according to Aristotle, who was probably the first to investigate colour mixtures; and finally a personal intepretation of Plato’s colour-system taken from his Timaios, according to which the eye does not receive light, but rather transmits a ray of vision towards an object.” The basic colours were:

Pythagoras: musical notes are assigned to colours;

Aristoteles: colours throughout the day: white, yellow, red, violet, green, blue, black

Plato: white, black, red, “radiant”.

Pythagoras 550BC
Aristotle 350BC
isaac Newton 1704

Chevreul designed a 72-part colour-circle whose radii, in addition to the three primaries of red, yellow and blue, depict three secondary mixtures of orange, green and violet as well as six further secondary mixtures. The resultant sectors were each subdivided into five zones and all radii were separated into 20 segments to accommodate the different brightness levels. According to the colorsystem website, …. “This is the first time that we have been confronted with the active role of the brain in the formation of colours, and we should once more remind ourselves that colours are also effects which are created in the world inside our heads.” It was also stated that Chevreul was often misquoted and that he saw the harmony of complementary colours as only one among six types of harmonies, and that it was not especially privileged in his text; (Jstor: 30)” ….on the contrary, Chevreul often favored the harmonies of”analogous” colors, rather than those of “contrast.” An example of how complementary colour pairs is demonstrated by Chevreul, is a red circle that is surrounded by a green halo; the red circle seems brighter

Chevreul’s Colour Model
  • similtaneous contrasts of colour and tone – 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 successive contrasts. This means, according to Chevreul, that the brain has a tendency to exaggerate differences in order to perceive them better.

According to Chevreaul, if we juxtapose two samples of grey, one lighter and the other darker, the lighter is perceived even lighter, and the darker even darker, especially around the border line. Goerge Rouqe ( argues that : “Even if Chevreul is still considered as having favoured the harmony of complementary colours, he was more a partisan of what he called “contrastsof analogous colours”, that is colours that have a similar lightness. ” Chevreaul gave many lectures on this topic and Rouqe writes that .”..Up to the 1880s, the only painters interested in Chevreul’s colour theorywere those who wanted to enhance their colours and they adopted accordinglywhat they called erroneously “the law of complementary colours”. They wereactually looking for a recipe in order to give more intensity to their colours, andfound it in the juxtaposition of complementary colours” He further states that many painters were trying at the time to enhance their colours, and that this law provided them with an extraordinary technique. The other reason is that painters “were anxious about colour harmony, and Chevreul, who had greatprestige as a scientist, provided them with rules for colour harmony.”

A famous painter who was interested in enhancing their colours through juxta-position of complementary hues, was Delacroix. Roque made an example of a work by Delacroix which I find interesting and decide to use for the purposes of this question:

In his painting, Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, 1840, oil on canvas which hangs in the Louvre Museum, Paris, Delacroix used 3 pairs of complimentary colours. If one looks at the flags one sees :One is yellow on a violet ground; another is blue with orange motifs, and then on the floor there are two juxtaposed flags, one green and the other red.

I found the two images below on a Yale website, but could not get access to any more reading about these illustrations from his book.

It seems Chevreul’s work can be summarized in terms of six colour harmonies:

  • harmonies of scale – produces by a range of tones and mixed with either white or black
  • harmonies of hue – produced by analogous hues
  • harmonies of dominant coloured light
  • harmonies of contrast of schale
  • harmony of contrast of hues
  • harmony of contrast of colours

Artist that were influenced by Chevreul

He did influence the Impressionists – he drawn pointed to the influence of the colour of the frame on the colours of the framed work, and argued against the use of gilded frames. Meaning that if the work itself includes golden elements, for example, the comparison between the golden frame and the golden parts of the painting would be unfavourable to the latter. The Impressionists followed his advice, according to G Roque. Pissaro tinted his stretchers with the complementary of the dominating colour of the painting. Monet, also juxtaposed complementary colours for the same reason, even though he claimed that he was reluctant to ‘theorise’. According to Roque the The Neo-Impressionists painters were probably the artistic movement most interested in colour science. Roque gives evidence that “Paul Signac, visited Chevreul with a fellow Neo-Impressionistpainter, Charles Angrand, in 1884, and the following year he went back to visit Emile David, Chevreul’s assistant at the Gobelins, this time probably accompanied by Seurat”. Interestingly both painters frequently interposed small dots of complementary colours in order to increase the luminosity of their paintings. The work of Seurat was mainly influenced by Charles Blanc and Chevreul’s Colour Theories, as his own painting technique and thoughts about an optical formula he developed. Georges Seurat founded the style around 1884 as chromoluminarism, drawing from his understanding of the scientific theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and Charles Blanc, among others. Divisionism developed along with another style, pointillism, which is defined specifically by the use of dots of paint and does not necessarily focus on the separation of colors.

Roque also refers to Van Gogh’ “Perhaps less known is van Gogh’s interest in colour theory and complementary colours. …not surprisingly, his use of colours has been more analysed by neuropsychiatrists and ophthalmologists looking for dyschromatopsia than by art historians, due to his supposed madness. For instance he has been diagnosed as having ‘xanthopsia’ or yellow vision. But if he had a great liking for yellow, a quick look at his paintings shows that yellow rarely occurs alone: in most cases, it is opposed to violet as the composition is structured by an opposition of complementary colours.” I was really intrigued by these remarks and had to look at The Sower again. Here Roque refers to a letter where Van Gogh explained: “The picture is divided in two: one half is yellow, the upper part, the lower part is purple”

The Sower, 1888, Van Gogh

Roque,Georges 2010, Chevreul’s work on Colour Theory and its consequenses for artists, a paper presented in Paris to the ColourGroup ( GB), online accessed through downloaded on 13 October 2019

Roque, Goerges, Chevreul and Impressionism, a Reappraisal , The Art Bulletin, Vol 78, No1 pp 26-39, March 1996. Accessed through website on 13 October 2019

Exercise: Mixing greys – anachromatic scale

I quickly learn the importance of good mixing of the black and white colours to get a good range of value levels from black/dark to white/light. The grey looks dark and chalky next to black and it seems much lighter next to white. It surely is neutral – no black or white can be seen. I can see how one can apply this value level exercise with various colours to work out their value scales. I was intrigued to try the same exercise with yellow. I initially mixed too little neutral grey and tried to go over the colour again. I also used the two yellows I have in oil together, Lemon Yellow hue and Cadmium Yellow pale – I wanted a bright Yellow to start with? Clearly the yellow lost much of its own colour as it bacame darker with the grey mixture.

Yellow and neutral grey and white

Complimentary colours

Here I had to work on a neutral grey ground – black and white mix. My yellows, blues and reds were laid out next to each other on the grounds. I started off with cheap posterpaint primary colours, but realised this paint did not apply well onto the tracing paper. My oil primary colours are the following choices and I tried to apply them for the exercise

Yellow: Cadmium Yellow pale and Lemon Yellow Hue

Blue: Prussian Blue and Ultra Marine Blue

Red: Permanent Crimson lake and Cadmium Red Hue

Looking at the primary colours and the areas next to it, where I added some white was a good exercise in how colour, by blending it can create hue – need to keep the surface damp though, and the tracing paper ground was drying quickly. For the idea of looking at the difference hue, chroma and tone I did not really have great comparisons to juxtaposition them.

Broken or tertiary colours

For this exercise I had to make a scale between an orange red and a green blue. The idea is to maintain consistent tonal values – by adding little white – at the mid point the result should be grey.

Above exercise was to start with an orange red and bring in green blue (mine was to dark to start with) Not easy to maintain a consistent tonal value and I clearly did not accomplish what I set out to do. I found it easier to work with my small palet knife and to apply the paint onto the tracing paper in this way. Should have used more white.

Exercise with violet to green – again I did not like my green to start with – I added some of the neutral grey to see how it affects the values.

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