How to Successfully Place Colors Side-by-Side

Just Red

Have you ever noticed that color changes when next to certain colors? Take, for instance, your red shirt looks red until you put it up to your pants when it starts to look slightly orange. Why does this happen?

As was previously discussed in my blog post How to Mix Paint Colors without Creating Mud, combining two complementary colors results in GREY.

This key concept also comes into play when colors are placed next to each other but in a slightly different way since these colors are not being directly mixed.

What is mixing, however, is the reflected light.


(Watch this episode of Vsauce  for a mind-blowing discussion of how we see color and the concept of “qualia”.)

When we see colors, our eyes are detecting and interpreting reflected light. Each pigment reflects light in its own way and gives us individual colors.

As discussed in The Artist’s Handbook by Ray Smith (this book can be purchased here), Chevreul, a published color theorist from 1839, discovered the Law of Simultaneous Contrast.

According to Chevreul, the LAW of SIMULTANEOUS CONTRAST demonstrates that strong color radiates its complementary color into the surrounding area.

If we apply this theory to just RED, the color RED casts a GREEN-aura.

Any color put directly beside RED will fall under this GREEN radiation of light. You can’t actually see this “aura” on its own, but it will affect the colors placed directly beside any strong color.

This is the reason why a RED square placed inside a BLACK square looks emphasized or larger.

The RED’s “aura” is adding a slight hint of GREEN radiated light to the BLACK. The BLACK is so dark you cannot actually see the hint of GREEN.

When sitting next to RED, this new BLACK now has a GREEN-bias making the RED pop.

Whereas, in this example, the RED’s aura is adding a slight hint of GREEN radiated light to the ORANGE making the orange feel a bit muddy.

It is because of this radiated light, that color will change how it looks depending on what color is put directly beside it.

And, to follow this theory even further, what happens if a color put right beside RED has its own aura complementary to RED’s GREEN-aura? It will dull the radiated light slightly towards GREY.