“I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will.” (Eugene Delacroix)
In the introduction to his 1963 book “The Interaction of Color,” Josef Albers says: “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.”
I’m crazy about that quote. It’s profound. If you only learn one thing about color, that’s the thing to learn. Colors have physical, measurable characteristics, but the way we perceive a particular color all depends on its context. That’s a pretty big deal.
Albers was a painter and teacher and his work built on principles first popularized by Michel Chevreul, a 19th century French chemist who wrote “The Principle of Harmony and Contrast of Colors” in 1839. Chevreul coined the term “simultaneous contrast” to explain the interaction of colors, a principle that profoundly influenced art education and generations of artists to come.
Simultaneous contrast, simply put, means that two colors, side by side, interact with one another and alter the viewer’s perception accordingly. The real colors aren’t altered, only our perception of them. Chevreul found that the most intense interactions are between complementary colors, those opposite each other on a color wheel. Van Gogh, in particular, was a big fan of complementary color harmonies. He said: “There is no blue without yellow and without orange.”
When my students complain that a color isn’t red enough, or intense enough, or powerful enough, I tell them to consider changing the surrounding colors in their composition. Often simply graying down the background color is enough to make other colors pop. Color harmony means that all colors have to get along with their neighbors.
I’m teaching a color workshop in July, and color relativity is a topic I plan to devote a lot of time to. It’s a truly fascinating subject.