Building Color Vibrancy

posted in: Blog, Classes, Painting | 18

Our eyes are designed to see colors in daylight. The brighter the light the better our cones can sense the micro wavelengths of yellows and reds especially. As light is diminished we detect less color but, we can still accurately discern shapes and value relationships. Different optical nerves work better in bright light, like our cones whiles others, the rods, take over as we lose external light.

When Delacroix visits Tangiers he experiences blue/violet colors in the shadows of the brightly light midday streets.  Through the French scientist Michel Chevreul, Delacroix would later discover that this phenomenon was biological and a function of afterimage or, successive-color-contrast effects. Monet would have the same experience looking at shadows on snow in sunlight. Those shadows appeared to be blue/violet.

Example 1 demonstrates the after-image color effects as discovered and published by Chevreul in the late 1830s.  These discoveries would alter the course of painting and influenced the development of impressionism.

Example 1. After-image color chart  illustrating successive color contrasts by M. Chevreul.

Later 21st century artists like Damien Hirst would take Chevreul’s vibrating page of color circles and re-introduce versions of them to contemporary audiences.

Later in the early 20th century Johannes Itten creates the color study program for the Bauhaus school in Germany. He too studies successive and complementary color contrasts. Contrasting colors and values affect our sense of relative brightness and relative size; they even affect our sense of spatial location. Colors and values can appear to recede or advance. Example 2 presents Itten’s demonstration of simultaneous contrast effects.

Example 2. Johannes Itten’s demonstration of simultaneous color contrast effects.

Van Gogh and his peers knew of Chevreul’s color research. Van Gogh’s “Night Café” painting demonstrates not only the biological amplification of color effects but also the emotional connotations of complimentary color contrasts (example 3).

Example 3. Vincent Van Gogh “Night Café” with simultaneous color contrast effects.

I use complementary color contrasts to build both vibrancy and spatial effects. In examples 4, 5, and 6 you can follow the sequence for building color vibrancy.

Example 4. Step one, “Farewell to September “a 24×24” oil on Dibond with a yellow acrylic underpainting seen here.

Example 5. Step two, the yellow underpainting is over-painted with dark blues in oil as you see here.

Example 6. Step three and the current state of “Farewell to September”. Here selective excisions are made into the dark overpainting  using squeegees and brushes to reveal the yellow underpainting. Additional colors were added as well.

I invite you to join me in my October zoom classes Tuesdays or Saturdays or both. Registration is at   I provide painting demonstrations, art history, information on the psychology of vision and personal critiques of your art works using digital drawing tools if you desire that.

18 Responses

  1. Jan Bown

    Thanks for digging into this. It is a very difficult thing for the early learner (and older) to grasp. Have more learning material to suggest? Working in watercolor, it is even more difficult to use this tool. I plug on…
    Grateful for your help.
    Jan Bown

    • dd_admin

      Jan, thank you for your comments. I recommend the “Tate Watercolor Manual, Lessons from the Great Masters” by Tony Smibert and Joyce Townsend. Best, David

  2. Julie Kostes

    Thank you David, for another generous and enlightening blog entry. Your “Farewell” image is beautiful.

  3. Mike McBride

    “Cold hearted orb that rules the night
    Removes the colours from our sight
    Red is grey and yellow white
    But we decide which is right
    And which is an illusion?”

    Knights in White Satin
    Moody Blues

    • dd_admin

      Mike, that was a fun poetic and musical allusion to the dim night light of the moon. I recall the Moody Blues fondly.
      Best, David

      • Michael C. McBride

        After I started painting 5 years ago, I would often recite that quote as I walked the trails at night. They too observed what Delacroix experienced and you so clearly explained. When you mentioned Delacroix in your Zoom class, I knew I had heard that name somewhere before but couldn’t recall it until I remembered a painting I did in honor of B. Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue . . .

        “So I drifted down to New Orleans
        Where I’ was lucky to be employed
        Working for a while on a fishing boat
        Right outside of Delacroix.” Not the same meaning, but still a long distance connection.

  4. Michael C. McBride

    Impatiently waiting for my gloss varnish from Jerry’s so I can put paint to paper and try this methodology for my self.

    P.S. As an unsolicited comment, I just took David’s 3 Zoom classes and I learned soooo much. I highly recommend enrolling in them.

  5. Christine HOURTEILLAN

    Peut on trouver vos explications en dvd en français? Je trouve vos cours géniaux, je vous regarde sur la chaine Muséum qui est traduite en français . J’aimerais tant avoir un professeur tel que vous…. hélas je n’en ai jamais trouvé….
    Merci Mr. Dunlop.

    • dd_admin

      Merci pour votre question sur une traduction française. Je suis le producteur et le réalisateur des programmes de David. Nous n’avons pas actuellement de traduction française de nos programmes, mais j’ai demandé à mon distributeur international s’il pouvait faire en sorte que notre distributeur français organise l’envoi d’une copie. Il pourra peut-être envoyer des liens vers la version française de notre série Landscapes Through Time with David Dunlop, si cela peut être utile. Je vous ferai savoir dans tous les cas. Y avait-il une autre série ou programme qui vous intéressait? J’espère que vous resterez en sécurité et en bonne santé et nous vous souhaitons de joyeuses fêtes et une merveilleuse 2021. Cordialement, Connie Simmons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *