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    Simultaneous contrast

  

  



"Equinox," Hans Hofmann, 1958. Note how the contrasting colors create energetic forms — which Hofmann famously termed "push and pull."

When two colors are laid down side by side, they interact and each color modifies the other. If the two colors complementary, each intensifies the other to the maximum extent possible. This has been known empirically by artists as far back as the Ancient Egyptians. Only recently have we understood the neurophysiological reason for this. Artists clearly discovered the effect at some point and then handed it down from generation to generation as part of the folklore. Consider the dramatic contrast in the cafe scenes by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) below.



There is strong contrast between yellow and blue in Vincent’s painting of the "Café Terrace on the Plce du Forum, Arles", 1888.

 



Again, dramatic contrast, between the red and green. This watercolor of Vincent’s "Night café in Arles" was painted the same month at the cafe at left.

Why do these colors seem so vivid? Consider two analogies: Have you even been in a hot sauna, and then jumped in a cold pool? The temperature contrast makes the water seem extra cold. Similarly, have you ever eaten pancakes with sweet syrup, and then had a glass of orange juice? The taste contrast makes the orange juice taste unusually sour.

To explore contrasts, point at the colors below left.

Notice how different circles stand out depending on the background color you choose.

  • When does the yellow circle stand out the most?
  • When does the green circle?

In Vincent’s cafes above, the contrast between yellow & blue, and red & green, cause both colors to seem more vivid. Color perception always depends on the other colors around.

This effect was noted by Chevreul, called "Simultaneous Contrast," and described in this 1839 Book, De la Loi du contraste Simultané des Couleurs, a book that was praised by Impressionists.

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