Michel Eugène Chevreul: The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and Their Applications to the Arts

Fig. 1. Unknown photographer, portrait of Michel Eugène Chevreul, http://www.wikipedia.org

Could Gestalt theory be applied on colour study? No doubt Michel Eugène Chevreul (Fig. 1) had answered this question in the year 1855, which is 35 years earlier than Christian von Ehrenfels’ “On ‘Gestalt Qualities'” and 57 years earlier than Max Wertheimer’s first finding in Gestalt psychology ‘Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement’.

According to Wikipedia, Chevreul is best known for his fatty acids, the discovery of margaric acid, and invention of soap. However, what got me interested is his discovery on colour contrast perception — The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and Their Applications to the Arts. The text has been treated as one of the most important contribution for the foundation of colour theory. While I was researching about Gestalt laws, I was wondering if Gestalt theory could be used into colour sector, and this somehow led me to the well-known Chevreul’s law.

Fig. 1. Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast, http://www.colorcube.com

Through observing a series of colour combination, Chevreul offers new principles of colour on visual perceptual. The law of simultaneous colour contrast suggests that the contrast of colours will “affect the optical composition of each juxtaposed colour.” (Chevreul, 1855, p. 15) After testing a series of colour on different type of background, Chevreul argues that the same colour might display different visual perception when placed upon different colors of background (Fig. 1). The perceptual difference is more identified when shared in the complementary colour, e.g., red and green, purple and orange, etc. Take Fig. 1 as example, the yellow colour perceptually shows different kind of brightness when placed on six different colours of background. This canonical theory is helpful to explain the figure-ground relationship on colour and how to produce specific effects on the perception via colour combination in space. The similar idea can also been found in Gyorgy Kepes’ (1944, p.17) Language of Vision, in which he states that “color and value depend always upon the immediate surrounding surfaces.” The color can be either amplified or neutralized by its juxtaposed color.

The law of simultaneous colour contrast states that all primary colours appear as the genuine when it was juxtaposed with grey; while black and white perceptually affect a colour’s brightness and toning. Chevreul also argues that a colour will be treated as figure rather than as ground when the brightness between the colour and its background are getting contrast. This theory is not only useful for the understanding of colour contrast perception, but also give me a hint in using colour to express the figure and ground relationship instead of merely using black and white tones.

Chevreul, Michel-Eugene (1855) The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and Their Applications to the Arts. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans

Kepes, György (1944) Language of Vision. Chicago: Paul Theobald


2 responses to “Michel Eugène Chevreul: The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and Their Applications to the Arts

  1. Pingback: POP Part 2 – Research Point: Chevreul’s Colour Theories | RosArt·

  2. Pingback: Painting 1: Research Point – Still Life | RosArt·

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