UART Tip #24: Using Simultaneous Contrast by Lee McVey

In his book, The Elements of Color, Johannes Itten says simultaneous contrast happens when you see any color, the eye simultaneously sees the complementary color, even if very subtly, even if it is not present. This effect will also occur between gray and strong chromatic colors and with colors that are not complementary.

When I taught simultaneous contrast color exercises to my Studio in Art students in the mid-1980s, I had no clue how much I would be using this theory in my own painting years later.

In painting, simultaneous contrast means everything is affected by what it is placed next to. Our perception of color is affected by the color placed next to it.

One of the dramatic ways this was brought home to me happened while I was painting a landscape with a river bank. Using Terry Ludwig pastels, I found just the right color of warm mid-toned brown to put in the river bank. Much to my surprise, when I brought the pastel stick close to my painting, I saw that this warm brown read as a gray color, not brown at all.

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The photo above shows tilted up, 3rd from the bottom right, the warm brown pastel stick I chose to use on the river bank.

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The photo above shows how that warm brown pastel looked when I placed it at my painting. It was a dramatic difference. The pastel stick didn’t change color, but what it was placed next to changed my perception of its color.

After this experience, I advised my students to never assume the color they see in the pastel box is what it will look like on their painting. It’s best to make a small mark with the pastel in the area needed to see if it is correct instead of putting a large smear of the color in the painting and then finding out it is the wrong color, value, or intensity.

When I first started pastel painting in the1980s, I used a clean swatch of my paper on the side of my painting to test my colors before adding them to the painting. I discovered this does not give a true reading of how the color will appear in the painting. How the color looks on top of a clean piece of paper, whether the paper be white, buff, or toned, will be different than how the color appears on top of your already in progress painting.

If I need a light area in a painting and don’t have pastel colors that will not look too chalky or white, I can place darker colors around the light area to make the area look lighter. Conversely, I can make an area appear darker by placing light colors around it. I can neutralize or gray the appearance of yellow by placing small marks of the same value complementary color purple next to it. This is using the theory of simultaneous contrast to my advantage.

To see how simultaneous contrast theory works for yourself, I recommend experimenting by placing squares of the same color in a row across your page and surrounding each square with various colors of different values and intensities to see the effects. Another good experiment to try is using different colored surfaces for your painting to see how the pastel colors react on top of it.

The photo below shows UART paper that has been toned with 4 different color swatches. The same purple pastel is used first on each color tone swatch. Then I used pink, rust, and pale blue. The most obvious changes in perception seem to be on the yellow tone and the blue tone.

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