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Lesson in Color: Simultaneous Contrast

03/03/12    Fred Fehlau  |  Provost, Art Center College of Design

Fred Fehlau, our guest writer for March, shares with us the importance of knowing about Simultaneous Contrast when working with color. Here, he shares his story.

Simultaneous Contrast is the affect of one color upon another, or more specifically the condition in which a stronger color pushes a weaker color towards the stronger color’s opposite, or complement (complementary colors are located directly across from one another on a color wheel – see figure 1). 

                                                                       Figure 1

For example, a strong red will force a weak gray towards green, which is red’s complement; a strong green will force the same gray towards red (see figure 2). The gray square inside the red background appears to be greenish, and the same color gray appears to be reddish against the green background.
                                    Figure 2                                                                      Figure 3

This happens with all complementary pairs, such as purple and yellow (see figure 3). The background colors don’t even need to be complementary. A famous painting by Joseph Albers illustrates this: a pale blue-green panel sits next to a yellow panel and a yellow-green line crosses each. The yellow-green line appears to be yellow on the blue-green panel and blue-green across the yellow panel (see figure 4).

Figure 4
The effect also works with values (darks and lights of the same base color regardless of its saturation). In figure 5, the inside square on the left appears to be the same value as the lighter background on the right, and the inside square on the right appears to be the same value as the darker background on the left. The two smaller squares are in fact the same value appearing to be different; the dark background makes the square look lighter, and the lighter background makes the same value square look darker.
                                          Figure 5                                                                        Figure 6
A more complex phenomenon occurs when one works with a gradation. In figure 6, ten steps from black to white are overlayed with a middle gray bar. The horizontal bar appears to gradate from light to dark, but is in fact the same value. An equally interesting affect is evident in the vertical bars themselves. Each bar appears to be scalloped, with the left edge appearing to be lighter next to the darker gray to the left, and with the right edge appearing to be darker next to the lighter gray to the right. The affect is more noticeable if you squint.
An equally interesting example is where two different colors appear to be the same. In figure 7, a green panel is placed next to a pale blue panel. Two orange squares, which appear to be the same color, are in fact not the same at all. The orange on the green background is actually darker and duller; it has been brightened by its contrast to the value and color of the green. The orange on the pale blue background is actually lighter and brighter, but has been made to appear duller and darker by the lightness and color of the pale blue. The two different oranges above are the same as the corresponding oranges below.
After Effects
A similar phenomenon is an “afterimage.” An afterimage is an optical illusion where one image continues to be “seen” as a “negative” of the first after viewing the original image for an extended period of time. Afterimages are caused when one’s eye photoreceptors (cone cells), are overstimulated, and attempt to compensate for the missing colors by replacing the viewed color with its complementary color.

For example, stare at figure 8 for twenty seconds and then move your attention to a bare white wall. In the place of the pink, black and cyan bars an Italian flag of green, white and red will appear.
Figure 8

How to choose colors with Simultaneous Contrast in Mind
All of this suggests that color is not specific or fixed. Rather, color is relative and dependent upon adjacent or other environmental colors, especially when the color is desaturated. This is why colors appear to be different in different situations.

So, when you set out to choose a color for a building or a wall, consider what you’ve got next to or on top of those surfaces. If you don’t you may be in for a surprise!
Photography and images courtesy and by permission of Fred Fehlau

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Patricia Benson says:
March 06, 2012 at 4:34 PM
Wonderful article about this fascinating subject. Thanks for reminding me of my favorite design school course...color! Beautifully explained.

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