Color Theory at Work: Exemplified in the Paintings of Alfred Sisley, George Bellows, John Sloan, Robert Henri, Vincent Van Gogh and Johannes Vermeer

29 Dec

Alfred Sisley, Church at Moret (1894)   (Blue versus Orange; Violet versus Yellow)

Note: click on any image to enlarge

There are many levels on which a great piece of art can be appreciated.  One of the most basic, and for me most important, is the level of color theory.  Whatever the era, whatever the genre, artists have known for millenia that certain colors react dynamically with other colors.  One of the most common dynamic relationships among colors is complementarity: the reaction of colors to their tonal opposites.  In this post I’m going to post images of paintings by some of my favorite artists, to illustrate the concept of complementarity and how it brings great works of art to life before your eyes.

Color Complementarity Refresher

These complementary relationships are easily illustrated on a color wheel, available for purchase at any art supply store.  In basic terms, however, the “complement” of each of the three primary colors (red, blue or yellow) is, roughly, the secondary color made by mixing the other two primary colors.  Thus:

  • red complements (blue + yellow) = green
  • blue complements (red + yellow) = orange
  • yellow complements (red + blue) = violet

As a result of these known color relationships, artists frequently adopt a pairing, or multiple sets of  pairings, between red-green, blue-orange and yellow-violet to bring a painting to life.  In simple terms, red brings out the green in green, and vice versa;  blue brings out the orange in orange, and vice versa; and yellow brings out the violet in violet, and vice versa.

Color Complementarity at Work

The images I’m including here are just handy examples of complementarity at work in art.  The principle applies universally and is worth keeping in your consciousness whenever you run across a piece that wows you.

Complementarity is clearly on display in Alfred Sisley’s Church at Moret (top of post).  See how forcefully  the deep blue of the sky at upper right interacts with the orange in the church roof and door/window/ornamentation on the church sides?  Similarly, the lower portion of the sky, the shadows on the church, and the street are painted in varying shades of violet, which interacts strongly with the yellows used in the lighted areas of the church walls.

George Bellows, Evening Blue (1913)   (Blue versus Orange; Violet versus Yellow; Red versus Green)

In Evening Blue (above) George Bellows is obviously trying to draw attention to the dramatic blue of the water and sky in this coastal scene.  But it’s important to look a little more closely at the painting to see how he pulls off the effect.  To start with, the “blue” in question ranges  from true blue to rather large patches of subtle violet.  The true blue buzzes in relationship with the complementary orange on the shore at middle left.  Similarly, the violet reacts with the complementary yellow on the shore at the bottom left quarter of the painting, in the hull of the boat and on the back of the figure in the bottom right quarter.  There is also a beautiful patch of orange/red running through the bottom of the painting, which reacts with the rich complementary green of the trees, the hull of the boat at bottom right and in the shadows on the shore.

Similarly, in Pink and Blue (below) John Sloan uses multiple complementary color relationships to make the painting work.  The green in the foreground and background is subtle in its interaction with the pink (red) in the girl’s dress and face.  The pink wouldn’t pop the way it does without that green — subtle though it may be.  Likewise the blue in the sky and rocks brings out the oranges in the girl’s face.  Finally, there is a lot of violet throughout the painting, especially  in the dress at middle right, which interacts dramatically with the yellows in the girl’s face and arms and in the neckline of her dress.

John Sloan, Pink and Blue (1915)  (Green versus Red; Blue versus Orange ; Violet versus Yellow)

The complementary color relationships are fairly obvious in the first three paintings.  They’re more subtle in Robert Henri’s beautiful Jessica Penn in Black With White Plumes (below).  The face and lips of the subject are in pink, red and very subtle yellow.  Red’s natural complement is green, and we see nice touches of blue/green in the ribbon that surrounds the face.  If you look very closely, the background is mainly a very dark, warm red with touches of deep blue.  The dress is black — but that black is a cool black erring toward blue.  The deep blue touches in the background combined with the blue/black of the dress interact in an unobtrusive way with the subject’s lovely red/orange hair.  There are also touches of orange in the top of the background.  The color complementarity in this painting is quite subtle and complex — in keeping with the loveliness and sophistication of the subject.

Robert Henri, Jessica Penn in Black With White Plumes (1908)   (Pink/Red/Yellow versus Blue/Green, Blue; Blue/Black versus Orange)

Let’s next have a look at Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Bedroom in Arles (below).  Looked at as a whole, the orange/yellow of the bed predominates.  What’s interesting is that that orange/yellow, in isolation from its surrounding colors, is scarcely more intense than the oranges and yellows we saw in the earlier paintings in this post.  But Van Gogh intensifies it by using a large mass of color and surrounding it with complementary blue/green on the walls and doors.  There’s also some intense red in the bed blanket, nightstand and floor which vibrates against the pale green in the chair seats, the towel hanging at the left of the composition, the window glass and the cracks in the floor.  Van Gogh was a master of color and has a lot of very artful color complementarity going on in this painting.

Vincent Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles (c. 1888)    (Orange/Yellow versus Blue/Green; Red versus Green)

I can’t help but compare Bedroom in Arles with Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (below).  To my eye there are notable similarities between the two works, in terms of the “color vibe” going on.  In The Milkmaid there is once again a dominant warm yellow, in the top of the subject’s dress and elsewhere on the table and objects hanging from the wall, set against vivid blue and violet in the dress and fabric draped on the table.  Simultaneously, there’s something going on between the pale green on the walls, table and shaded side of the subjects head dress versus the red dispersed throughout the painting in the floor, pitcher, bottom of the subject’s dress, basket on the table, window frame, and in the subject’s skin tones.  It’s interesting that two paintings that seem at first to be as dissimilar as Bedroom in Arles and The Milkmaid actually have quite a lot in common in terms of  color pulse.  I haven’t studied the question but I have to wonder whether Van Gogh wasn’t, at times, consciously emulating Vermeer’s sense of color.  If so, good for him!

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (c. 1658-60)    (Orange/Yellow versus Blue; Red versus Green)

There are many things to appreciate in great works of art.  For me, as an oil painter, it’s important to get to the bottom of how the artist achieved the “look” he was trying for.  Color theory, and specifically color complementarity, has a great deal to do with that and is worth close attention.  It’s also just fun to figure out how an accomplished artist assembled his work to get his message across with maximum effect.

This is my last post of 2011 here on Art Out The Wazoo — thanks for following my blog and I’ll see you next year!

2 Responses to “Color Theory at Work: Exemplified in the Paintings of Alfred Sisley, George Bellows, John Sloan, Robert Henri, Vincent Van Gogh and Johannes Vermeer”

  1. Helen September 19, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    excellent art

    • bobbalouie September 19, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

      I agree! Love your last name — thanks for commenting. B.

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