The Colour of Shadows

As we head towards the Winter Solstice, our rather limited daylight here in Scotland has rather surprisingly been a source of colour inspiration to me.

In June 2010, philosopher and art historian, Dr.George Roque read his paper, Chevreul at the Gobelins: The discovery of the law of similtaneous contrast of colours and its consequences, to the Colour Group (GB) in Paris.  Unfortunately I missed the presentation but have been sent a publication,  Chevreul’s Colour Theory and its Consequences for Artists,  written by Dr.Roque which is based on the paper he presented in Paris.

He writes at length about the French chemist, Michel Chevreul who famously published Chemical Researches on Animal Fats in 1823 before being appointed Director of the dyeing department at Gobelins Manufacture in Paris.

Dr. Roque explains that it was due to queries from the weavers at Goblins about the intensity of certain black wool samples that led Chevreul to discover perceived colour, say grey for example, varies depending on the colour it is placed next to. He realised this change in colour was not a chemical change but a psychophysiological change. After intensive research into contiguous colours Chevreul came up with his famous Law of Simultaneous Contrast.

I’ve redrawn the illustration that Chevreul and Dr.Roque used to demonstrate this point. The two grey rectangles on the left are exactly the same colour and the two greys on the right are the same as each other. However, you will notice that when the two different greys are placed next to each other the light grey appears lighter and the dark grey appears darker. Our brains are exaggerating the difference between the two greys.

This demonstrates that colours change their perceived lightness but Dr.Roque goes on to explain that Chevreul also noticed that when two hues were placed next to each other, their hue appeared to change.

Chevreul was aware of complementary colours so he applied the same logic – if the brain exaggerates the difference of lightness between two contiguous shades then  two hues will also strengthen their differences and look as different as they can. Below you will see the red and green in the centre look stronger than they do when they are isolated.

Chevreul’s discovery was of huge significance to artists, textile designers, wallpaper manufactures and artists. Artists such as Delacroix, Monet, Pissarro, Seurat, Van Gogh now had a psychophysiological “tool” to use to help them to strengthen the colours in their work.

If you wish to read more on this fascinating subject, you may want to read Art et Science de la Couleur by Dr.Roque but for now I will get round to the point I was initially going to make about our winter light (or lack of it!).

Artists armed with this new knowledge were able to use colours in completely new and exciting ways. It also led on to the understanding that shadows were not actually normally black or grey. We now know that shadows are the complementary colour of the light source hitting an object so in outdoor landscapes, the yellow sun light will cast a violet shadow (yellow’s complementary colour) – the French Impressionists were the first to really take this on board.

Finally, I arrive at my point. I have been looking at shadows in the past week and capturing some of the violet-greys which are cast. I plan to use some of these natural violets in some textiles I am currently working on. I will also be thinking a lot about Chevreul’s Law and attempting to create some “accidental” colours which are only visible due to psychophysical reasons –  an area that really intrigues me as it gives colour a whole new dynamic……and I’ve not even mentioned colour vibration yet…..its hardly surprising that so many people are fascinated with colour around the world is it?

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10 thoughts on “The Colour of Shadows

  1. Very interested to read about studies of colour Niki as my dissertation for my BA was about artists whose work is devoid of colour.
    Your violet-greys sound lovely – I like to mix different greys without using black and white when I am painting or printing.
    Jacqui

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  2. Great post, Niki! Lots to think about – I love it. Thanks for discussing and exploring color in such a curious fashion. And your photos are lovely, too!

    Also glad to have your comments on my tree decorating post (which seems so trivial after reading this!!) Love your idea of spray painting twigs for the tree. Great way to add more color.

    Happy Holidays to you!

    Kelly

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  3. When we learned about simultaneous contrast in my colour theory class a couple of years ago, we had to find a picture of a room with colours that would create a simultaneous contrast, replicate the colours with our paints, and then see if the contrast happened. I created grey & yellow chips, and you could see purple between them. So cool! It’s funny how our eyes tell our brains to see something that isn’t even there!

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