Part 2. Research point: Colour Theory

It is this research exercise that has held up all my posts on this blog in part 2. In trying to keep everything in course order I have had to make draft blogs on my painting exercises as I have gone along ready to release once this post is done!

Why the hold up? Good question and not easy to answer. I posted in my response to feedback on assignment 1 that I always feel like there is something I am missing or not understanding regarding colour but don’t know what that is. In starting researching colour theory I may have touched on areas that go someway to explain what that ‘something’ is. It is still not tangible, concepts and ideas are hovering at the edge of my consciousness however, the quest to understand what it is I am looking for has lead me deeper and deeper into colour theory literature, hence the hold up as I have been accumulating information to help me understand what it is I don’t understand!

I am a scientist and I have a working knowledge of light, reflection, scattering and absorption. I can explain to my children why the sky is blue, why an apple looks red and how the eye works. I understand how primary colours are used to mix secondary and tertiary colours but I can not shake the feeling that there is something else that I need to understand to feel comfortable with colour. After a couple of weeks reading and researching the best I can do is say that the ‘something’ has got to do with a combination of the following factors:

  • understanding the chemistry of paint
  • understanding the choice of palette and modern colour mixing theory and
  • understanding the paradox that material ‘colours’ require visual ‘colours’ to be seen

I still have a way to go with this: I now need to undertake a colour chemistry degree alongside an art degree! Time is against me and given that I have to finish this module in 1 year flat means I have to type something here and move on! So…..

Colour Theories of Chevreul (in the context of a brief history of colour theory!)

Michel-Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889) was a French chemist who spent much of his life studying the chemistry of coloured dyes in the textile industry. He is famed for his 72-part colour wheel based on a three primary colour system of red, blue and yellow published in 1861 (cited by Roque, G., 2011). However he was not the first to try to order colour and chart its place in our visual world. Pythagoras, Aristotle and Plato all have observations that try to place different colours in some hierarchical order with relationships with one another and to the visible world around (Silvestrini and Fischer, 2011).

However it was not until the 17th Century that the idea of the three modern primaries of red, yellow and blue became established (Ball, 2001). Issaac Newton is credited with not just credited with re-uniting refracted light back into white light but also with uniting (in 1704) the opposite ends of the visible light spectrum (red and ‘violet’) into a colour wheel (Ball, 2001). This colour wheel is artificial, as red light has a longer wavelength and violet a shorter wavelength – there is no wave-length continuity between them. However by presenting colours as a wheel allowed artists and chemists to explore colour mixing theory within defined boundaries.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tried to dispel the notion that Newton presented that spectral colours of light when mixed formed white light (in 1810, as cited by Silvestrini and Fischer, 2011), but commenting at length that mixing primary pigments of paint produced something nearer to black (Ball, 2001). Here we have the paradox that I think still drives colour theory: that visual colour can be pure but material colour can not. It took James Clerk Maxwell to resolve the colour mixing to black / white issue. In 1855 he showed that mixing light is not the same as mixing pigment and that three kinds of coloured light can generate almost any colour but those colours were red, blue and green, not the primaries as viewed by artists, red, blue and yellow (Ball, 2001). Maxwell went on to explain that by mixing two light rays of different colours you are not producing a third light ray of a different wavelength, rather you are adding two components that together stimulate the retina of the eye to ‘see’ the third colour – the so called additive mixing of colour. The mixing of coloured pigments is different. By mixing two physical substances you are altering the properties of the material that is in the path of white light. A blue pigment is seen as blue because it absorbs all colour light other than blue. Add a yellow pigment to a blue pigment you now have a mix that absorbs blue light as well, the result of which is a subtraction of wave-lengths available for the retina to be stimulated by. Such subtraction mixing will result in the retina seeing the colour ‘black’ if the pigments are of pure blue and yellow (Wilcox, 1987). Of course as artists know mixing blue and yellow pigments will result in a variety of hues of green, not black, but that is because pigments are not pure primary colours (MacEvoy, 2015). As a result a blue pigment and a yellow pigment can both reflect green light thus a colour green is seen by the retina (Wilcox, 1987). Because of this many artists today use the split-primary palette of colours, where by they use a ‘warm’ and and ‘cool’ version of each of red, blue and yellow in order to minimise the above effects of ‘impure’ pigments. With the advent of modern spectroscopy for colour analysis there is evidence that suggests such a split-primary palette is outdated and that a wider gamut of colours is obtained using secondary colours as a basis for colour mixing (MacEvoy, 2015).

Other colour theories of Chevreul include the law of simultaneous contrast (1839, cited in Roque, 2011) where a colour appears to change when seen against a different background. to understand why this might be so, the idea successive contrasts must be understood. Successive contrast refers to the phenomenon that creates an afterimage of a colour in its complementary colour when viewed for any length of time (Hornung, 2005). This phenomenon was noted as early as 1743 by Buffon and his contemporaries (Ball, 2001) but was explained more thoroughly by Goethe (as ‘called-for’ colours; Ball, 2001). When two colours are viewed next to each other, one may be seem with a complementary after-image of the other superimposed over it, thus altering the perceived colour of the first.

Artists could this use the law of simultaneous contrast to enhance colours in their painting by using complementary colours next to one another. In these cases successive contrast would increase the perceived intensity of a colour as the afterimage superimposed on it would be the same hue as the actual colour.

There is documented evidence that Delascroix used Chevreul’s ideas to intensify his colours and introduce colour harmony to his paintings (Roque, 2011) although the effects have not withstood the test of time and so are not apparent now. Impressionist painters such as Pissarro paid heed to the advice that Chevreul dished out against the use of gilded frames, to prevent the influence of the colour on the painting (Roque, 2011). It was the neo-impressionists that really took on board the ideas of laying down simple brushstrokes of pure pigment next to each other and allowing the viewer to experience the full optical effects of simultaneous contrast. Artists Suerat and Signac developed the technique of pointillism where this application of pigment was refined to a a system of applying small dots of colour. Not only would these contrasting dots enhance and intensify the colours through simultaneous contrast they would also have the effect of ‘optically mixing’ and producing colour effects different from the pigments themselves.

Sunday afternoon on the the island of La Grand Jette by Seurat

If you look really closely at the above painting by Seurat you can see the tiny brushstrokes that make up the painting. the colours used in each main colour area vary tremendously, with many different hues being used to make up the appearance of each colour block when viewed from a distance. For instance the red-brown shirt of the prone man nearest the viewer appears to be made up of all manner of pinks, reds, greens and oranges. The large areas of green will also act as a successive contrast to the reddy hues.

Antibes. Petit Port de Bacon by Signac

In this painting by Signac, the brush stokes are much more evident – formulaic even. However his use of colour is dazzling! The juxtaposition of complementary colours is evident throughout the painting, notably in the tree but also across the compositional structure of painting as a whole. Blues in the background, oranges in the foreground.

Paysage by Hippolyte Peteijean

The pointillism nature of this painting is evident but the brush stokes more varied than either of the other two examples. It is the use of complementary colours that drew me to it. the blues and oranges are laid down in almost alternating horizontal bands of colour, each intensifying the bands either side of it. As much as I like this painting, I do find I have to look away after a short while then look back again. The dotty nature of the image is rather uncomfortable to my eye.

I do not think I have finished with colour theory yet. I have made several pages of notes regarding the more modern aspects of colour theory in my sketchbook so that I may have some annotations for reference at hand when painting. I still search for a deeper understanding of colour however, as I fear I have only just scratched the surface.


Ball, P. (2001). Bright Earth, the invention of colour. Penguin Books Ltd; London.

Hornung, D. (2005). Colour, a workshop for artists and designers. Laurence King Publishing; London.

MacEvoy, B. (2015). (accessed 12/4/17)

Roque, G. (2011). Chevreul’s colour theory and its consequences for artists. Colour Group (Great Britain; (accessed 27/3/170

Silvestrini, N and Fischer, E.P. (2011). (accessed 12/4/17)

Wilcox, M. (1987). Blue and yellow don’t make green. School of Colour Publications: Bristol.

Part 2. Research point: Colour Theory

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