Understanding Colour



Understanding Colour


Michel Eugene Chevreul

– Chemist

– director of the dye works at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris- found there were problems with the changes in the colour of the black fabric depending on which colours were next to it –

Discovered that intense dyes induced the appearance of colours on the surrounding areas of black, grey, white or other weaker hues. The colours they induce are almost exactly opposite them on Newton’s colour circle.

Complementary contrasts were already well known to artists.

Of colors of equal lightness, that will look brightest which is against the darkest background, and black will display itself at its darkest against a background of greatest whiteness. And red will look most fierce against the yellowest background, as do all colors surrounded by their directly contrary color.”

Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci 1651

– simultaneous contrast – Chevreul’s illusion

…white light contains all the colours of the spectrum…Newton…arranged these colours in a circle giving birth to modern colour theory

Delecroix – drew observations from this – yellow skin has violet shadows,red fabric has greenish shadows.  Intelligently introduced colour into shadows –  Laws of complementary contrast

Colour Exercises

Mixing colour seems to me to be a skill which is not acquired easily.  I have very few colours at present and so this first exercise was a little restricted.  The mixing of the greys was interesting.  I did several tonal scale lines and certainly the gradation of tone improved the more I did.  When I placed the neutral grey next to the white and then next to the black I found that the one next to the white appeared to be darker than the one next to the black… certainly there was a difference.

Primary and secondary colour mixing exercise – only have two yellows so restricted in arranging different colour sequences.  The names on the tubes are confusing – don’t understand at this point the difference between ‘mixture’ and ‘hue’ – need to find this out! It’s not easy to mix – sometimes the grey of the background altered the colour – easier when I was adding the white to maintain consistent tonal value.

I found these exercises very good and could see that there is a ‘world’ of colour – so much to learn and understand.  I particularly loved the tones of green which were created.  Having only worked in pastels previously I was constantly frustrated by the difficulty in being able to create just the ‘green’ I wanted, even though I have a wide range of pastel colours.  It was liberating to see the wonderful tones just coming from the brush which could be altered with the merest suggestion of another colour.

Mixing tertiary colours: amazing variety of tones could be achieved.

However, I always seem to be coming up against a ‘wall of ignorance’.  There is quite obviously SO much to learn about colour.  With these exercises I am just dipping in! This isn’t the way I work.  I have to know what I am doing and while I can relate to the concept of using colour intuitively, I personally want to have a foundation of understanding.  I became very interested in colour during the Drawing 1 course when I was using pastels. But I knew then that my instinctive use of colour was not enough.  When I was trying to push ideas further into abstraction I would come up against a ‘ceiling’ – I didn’t know enough to take new avenues of exploration beyond trial and error or mere ‘accidents’.  These are fun and can lead to exciting outcomes but knowledge and understanding allow for infinite possibilities and yes, the opportunity then to break all of the rules or just ignore them!

The exercises and notes in the Course are just a starting point for me – I need to do my own study of the subject.  So……..

Three books on the subject I am reading:

  1. Colour by Edith Anderson Feisner
  2. Basic Colour: a practical handbook by Jane de Sausmarez
  3. Colour by Betty Edwards

I am working with practical books on this subject which encourage the reader to do practical exercises because I find that the pure theory just doesn’t stay with me…not easy to understand.

So we shall see where this takes me but I suspect I will want to go deeper….


About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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