Colour theory revisited – Part 2, research point 1

I’m coming back to this after a few months’ break while finishing the Drawing1 module and my understanding of how to tackle these research areas has grown, along with my ability to process and retain something of art’s back story.

The purpose of this research point is to discover more about Chevreul’s role in the development of colour theory and look to see who and how this has influenced in their practice of painting.

My first stop was a paper by Georges Roque (Chevreul’s colour theory and its consequences for artists, 2011) which details the manner of Chevreul’s insightful discovery and how this was subsequently used. This turned out to be a comprehensive and well articulated account.

Chevreul was a chemist, a scientist with a particularly scientific approach to the question of delivering colours via various dyes to manufacturers of cloth, wool, and wallpapers. When a dispute arose between a maker of wallpapers and their client about the inconsistency of colour grey in one design (first image above), he was able to refer back to his knowledge of how colours work when juxtaposed and illustrated this in court to settle the argument – the grey was not inconsistent at all, it was influenced by its background. This became the law of simultaneous contrast which he illustrated using a series of dots on a white background ( p 12 of Roque’s paper).

The immediate effect, according to Roque, was not on painters but on practitioners such as printers who could now solve practical problems of making lettering stand out. The only artists seemingly interested were the ones seeking a ‘recipe … to give more intensity to their colours’ (P 14) and who found it by using what they referred to as complementary colours. Pissarro is reported to set his paintings in white frames in order to capitalise on the effect of complementary colours, and Monet used the principle to enhance colour intensity, his many poppy fields being cited as good examples of this. Seurat is said to have summarised ‘the six principles’ of Chevreul’s law and, along with Signac, used small dots of complementary colours to ‘increase the luminosity’ of their paintings.

Delauney, according to the Tate, went on to found Simultanism with his wife in around 1910 and was part of a developing, post-Chevreul movement that included:

French painters from then on, particularly the impressionists and post-Impressionists generally, and especially the neo-Impressionists.

The Tate. Page accessed 7th February 2020.

Chevreul’s importance was his meticulous attention to scientific principles and the use of objective evidence to demonstrate what came to be the theory that carries his name. Not only did he understand what happened when particular colours were juxtaposed, he also knew – insofar as anyone could at the time – why this happened so that the principle could be applied with flexibility in a way rules cannot.


Images are from my personal notebook which runs alongside any sketchbook or other OCA material. It is a private document from which I may choose to share particular sections.


Roque, G., 2011. Chevreul’s colour theory and its consequences for artists. The Colour Group.

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