Frontispiece for The Laws of Contrast of Color by Chevreul. This piece demonstrates how to layout colors on a white background.
Laws of Contrast of Color by Michel Èugene Chevreul
In any successful industry there is a collaboration among disciplines. During the mid 1800’s, there was an attempt by artists and scientists alike to understand light and the proponents of color. One of these scientists was Michel Èugene Chevreul. He originally worked as a chemist researching fatty acids but ultimately applied his research to the study of color. In 1824, Chevreul was appointed to be the director of dying for tapestries at Hobelins and Beauvais. Fabric dying, although an art, is governed by scientific recipes that only chemists could truly understand and perfect. Gobelins recruited Chevreul because their tapestries appeared dull in color. Chevreul realized that the issue was not the dyes but the way that the complementary colors were weaved next to each other—producing a grey effect to the eye. After studying this more, he formulated the laws of contrasting colors and published this text in 1861.
This text is interesting because it aims to discuss color and uses various coloring techniques in print to describe what could be done in terms of weaving. Beginning at the outside over, Chevreul uses green, red, and gold leafing for the text. He also uses a title font that has an opening revealing the color underneath it. This is interesting because it gives insight to the order in which the book was printed. The spine features various gold leaf designs all of which make the book stand out on a shelf. Prior to the publishing of this book Chevreul’s research was disseminated through talks he gave and scientific journals. This text is Chevreul’s first opportunity to showcase not only his work but an aesthetic component to his ideas. The cover highlights Chevreul’s interest in the arts and crafts movement. Coincidentally the text was first popular among practitioners in applied and decorative arts. The book features a frontispiece (pictured) that highlights one of Chevreul’s ideas in terms of coloring on white backgrounds and serves as an interesting precursor to the text. Readers who don’t understand the image prior to reading will definitely understand following.
Although originally written in French, the book and its ideas gained so much popularity that it was eventually translated to English—hence why UCLA has an English copy of the text. Because this text is a translation it actually features both a preface from Chevreul, as well as his translator. This shows that those working on this book had an interest in the clarity of ideas and felt the need to acknowledge what information could be lost in translation. Without knowing his background, the text alone would signify Chevreul’s scientific background.
Pages are sometimes formatted like math problems rather than paragraphs. Chevreul composes color equations to visually explain how his weaving process works. The text also uses multiple colored illustrations throughout. On the bottom of each image is the plate number, highlighting that these images are likely colored lithographs. This fact alone signifies how much time it took to physically print the book as each color had to be laid separately and printed for each illustration. It’s also interesting because the information contained within Chevreul’s text transformed the printing process and the application of color. Meaning that the book itself is a factor in its own production—changing history as it is making it.
Ultimately, this work had a huge influence on artists. Neo-impressionists were fascinated by Chevreul’s dot diagrams (pictured). In the 1880’s artists like Paul Signac visited Chevreul to understand his theories better. Georges Seurat mentions Chevreul in his sketchbook’s sources. Chevreul’s theories also extended to the display of art itself, as he argued gilded frames impeded on the perception of the colors in paintings. Overall, the text is particularly interesting because it is both an object of aesthetics and science. The actual design and format of the Chevreul’s text only reaffirms its multifaceted position in the history of the book.
Print Magazine: Stewart, Jude. “The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 3.” Print Magazine, 9 Nov. 2010<
The Color Group: Roque, Georges. Chevreul's Colour Theory and its Consequences for Artists. The Colour Group, 2011.
Journal of Chemical Education : Lemay, Pierre. “Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889).” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 25, no. 2, Feb. 1948, doi:0.1021/ed025p62.
This spotlight exhibit by Olivia Kope as part of Dr. Johanna Drucker's "History of the Book and Literacy Technologies" seminar in Winter 2018 in the Information Studies Department at UCLA.
For documentation on this project, personnel, technical information, see Documentation. For contact email: drucker AT gseis.ucla.edu.