Part 2, project 3, exercise 1: Colour relationships – simultaneous contrast

Updated on 27 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

15/16 May 2016. I still had a large part of the neutral grey ground prepared for the last colour experiments, so I used this for my exercise on exploring simultaneous colour contrast, i.e. the effect that colours appear to change relative to the colours they are seen against. Colours, which are close together on the colour wheel, appear more like one colour than when seen separately, while colours opposite to one another on the wheel reinforce each other. In the colours I chose (Fig. 1) the relative strength of this “cancelling out effect” is visible with the colours yellow, and both orange and green, which lie next to yellow on the colour wheel. While, for example, the yellow square inside the yellow-green frame (no. 3) is hardly noticeable as a separate colour, it is relatively clearly visible inside the green (no. 5) or dark orange (no. 2) frame. In producing the squares I had to take care not to leave any of the background colour to shine through at the boundary between each colour pair. The effect on the pair was instantaneous, at least to me. Even in the fourth square from the left, the tiny areas of grey between the yellow and green are so prominent that they shift viewer attention away from the colour relationship I wanted to test. In addition, it was very difficult to take a photo at all that was not either too dark or too bright, but then with shiny brush strokes, all of which have their own influence on the colour relationships explored here.

Figure 1. Simultaneous contrast in colours close to one another in the colour spectrum

Next I was asked to produce another (yellow) square, this time with its tonally equal complementary colour added, and to observe the effect (Fig. 2). To be honest, I would not know how to describe the influence. On the one hand, violet being the complementary colour to yellow, the combination works to enhance contrast in the pair. At the same time, making the pair tonally equal seems to work in the opposite direction. Colour contrast and tonal contrast appear to work hand in hand, as I would expect when thinking about it, but I may be wrong with my impression. In addition, I am not sure, whether I was completely successful in matching tonal values in the example below. No matter how much white I add, the yellow always seems brighter and there seems to be a limit regarding the potential of adding white in tonal adjustment (see explanation for this effect below).

Figure 2. Complementary pair of colours, contrast with tonal values made equal

Finally I was asked to produce square frames of a complementary pair and to observe their effect on a neutral grey centre in comparison with a white frame (Fig. 3). Since I was already using a neutral grey ground, I did not understand the instruction of having to paint an additional neutral grey centre, so I omitted that step. In order to see the effects the different frames have on their centres, I need to half close my eyes and carefully cover the squares I do not want to look at, since they are a source of distraction. To me, the grey square appears darkest and similar (but not equal) in the tonally similar complementary pair of yellow and violet, somewhat lighter inside the white and lightest inside the tonally unchanged violet frame which I added out of interest. When looking for information on the internet regarding the relative brightness of colours, it is the yellow-green receptors in the human retina that are the most sensitive (Kaye, 2014). Since the human brain tends to reinforce differences in order to separate information, it is to be expected that the brighter the square, the darker the centre will appear, and vice versa. The strongest colour contrast is produced by combining yellow and black (Perron, n.d.), so my observation regarding the white square is correct. This means, however, that no matter how much white I add to a colour, the tonal value of yellow/green-yellow may in the end be unattainable. This is my own interpretation and again I may be wrong, but it tells me that it is necessary to be very careful with the use and placement of yellow in a painting.

Figure 3. Complementary pair of colours on neutral grey

I am planning to explore colour contrast for Assignment 2 (separate posts to follow) and will try and keep investigating the subject throughout the preparations.


  1. Kaye, T. (2014) What color do humans see as brightest? [online]. Quora. Available at: [Accessed 16 May 2016]
  2. Perron, C. (n.d.) Colour Choices on Web Pages: Contrast vs Readability [online]. Carin Perron Colour Theory and Practice. Available at: [Accessed 16 May 2016]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s