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    Color contrasts through the ages

  

For ages, artists have intuitively used color contrasts for dramatic effect. Michelangelo (1475-1564) was a colorist of great originality and extravagance. On the Sistine chapel, he used cangiante coloring to an unprecedented degree – shifting hues to create midtones and lights – for example, adding yellow highlights to an orange robe.



The dynamic shot hues of Michelangelo’s draperies give the figures great spiritual energy. Detail of one of the Damned who is beginning to move downward.

 



The Libyan sibyl is lost in thought as she twists herself to lower a heavy book onto a shelf. Her pose is as ornamental as the cangianti colors of her drapery.

 



Christ appearing in the clouds, from a Commentary on the Apocalypse, by Beatus of Liebana, c. 1109.

In northern Spain, medieval artists used color in original and uncompromising ways. Note the strongly contrasting yellow and red. Bordering the Arab world of the time, the stylized illustrations of the 10th-12th centuries (like the illustration at right) were rediscovered in the 1920’s by artists like Picasso and Léger.



"The Milkmaid," Vermeer, Jan, c. 1658-60

 

In Vermeer’s milkmaid, he used pure yellow and blue on the front of the maid’s yellow bodice, where it catches the light, and in the top of her apron. These contrasting colors dominate the painting, creating the space and light. The yellow bodice is a source of light, illuminating her cap and spreading on to the wall. The blue is strongest in the shadowed apron and grows lighter in the tablecloth.
Leonardo da Vinci described the effect, as follows:
"Of different colors equally perfect, that will appear most excellent which is seen near its direct contrary … blue near yellow, green near red: because each color is more distinctly seen when opposed to its contrary than to any other similar to it."

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