Building Color Vibrancy

posted in: Blog, Classes, Painting | 14

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.

14 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

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