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Bernard Gilbert: Teaching Chromatic Research

Soon it will be back to school, which is good news: Bernard Gilbert is a painter and teacher in Namur (Belgium). Amateurs of all ages and all artistic disciplines can, under his guidance, undertake chromatic research. Moreover, from the beginning of the school year 2021, they will also be able to follow his advice in a painting course.

Bernard Gilbert studied at the ERG (École de Recherches Graphiques); he followed the color courses of Roland Jadinon, whom a recent book (in French) praises, and those of Marthe Wéry (1930-2005), a well known Belgian painter. Then, for more than two years, he devoted himself exclusively to the study of colors. It was then that he began his teaching career, first for the artistic humanities and then for higher education. In particular, he taught at the ESA Saint-Luc in Liège, where he gave the course “Techniques and technologies, color” for future professional artists.

In addition to his work as a painter and teacher, Bernard Gilbert is also a color consultant for companies, architects and the private sector.

He is therefore not only a theorist but also a practitioner whose work has been exhibited in Belgium, but also in Europe (France, Switzerland, Poland,…), the United Arab Emirates, Quebec, Chile and Brazil, in short, all over the world!

Several galleries have represented his work, take a look at this one for example or discover his paintings here and the use of color in architecture there.

Today Bernard Gilbert works mainly within a collective he created: Subject Matter.

Note that this article was originally written on the French version of the blog: https://www.vincianelacroix.net/bernard-gilbert-enseigner-la-recherche-chromatique/

Bernard Gilbert, three paintings made in 2020; from left to right: Number 353, Number 355 and Number 373 (© Bernard Gilbert)


The first time I heard about Bernard Gilbert was in a bistro in Namur, about ten years ago. Next to my table, a passionate student was enthusiastically telling his mates about his experience at the class of Chromatic Researches at the Academy of Fine Arts. I was almost jealous. How I would have loved to have taken this course, a real singularity in the Belgian landscape! Indeed, this title does not exist in the founding decree, and one can imagine that a strong personality, well supported by a director, is required to propose such a course in the context of an evening class. Alas, no other Belgian city offers such teaching, not even the capital, which has many academies.

In the meantime I have discovered the pictorial works of Bernard Gilbert and, in 2019, during the end-of-year exhibition, I saw the works of students who followed the course, of which the article below gives a partial account.

Chromatic Research (student work, exhibition 2019).

So I leave the keyboard to the teacher-painter for the rest of the article. Bernard has followed the outline proposed in the call to which he has also contributed with Félix d’Haeseleer and Caroline Dujardin, whose teaching is also on the program of this series.


I have been teaching color since 1997.

The first school was the academy of Fine Arts of Namur, artistic humanities section.

Then, this same academy, but in reduced hours (evening classes) where I created a course of Chromatic Research. I still teach it today.

For 5 years, I also gave an elective course, color orientation at the ESA St-Luc Liège in BAC 2 and 3 and a course in Master 1, interior design section.

A version of the color wheel, with dark colors on the outside, light colors on the inside and colors of the same hue but more saturated in between.

Why is the teaching of color useful?

If I take the context of the academy, very little color is taught. Here and there, there are small courses given within the framework of more specific practices such as painting, ceramics, screen printing, etc.

It is this deficiency that motivated me to write a Chromatic Research course, an autonomous and complementary course, focusing specifically on color (physics, physiology and chemistry). This course is accessible to all students attending the academy, whatever their artistic practice. One could therefore say that this course is a “universal” course. I insist here on the fact that this course is not a “final” course but rather complementary to the different artistic practices, allowing each student to refine his or her language of color.

As far as teaching at ESA Saint-Luc is concerned, for this elective course, we are in the same register as the Academy, i.e. a certain number of students enrolling for 4 hours of classes per week during a four-month period, whatever their discipline (interior architecture, industrial design, painting, photography, visual and graphic communication, art restoration, etc.). This creates, in a way, a richness as different practices meet within this course, around color.

In interior architecture, I teach a few courses per year in Master 1. Here, I focus my teaching more specifically on architecture, both historically and through practical exercises (learning about the perceptions and interactions of colors, the spatiality of colors, but also specific follow-up of projects on the precise field of color).

The exercises are carried out in the plane or in space, depending on the student’s preferred discipline (student work)

5 fundamental aspects in the teaching of color

Note that these five basic points are not ranked nor listed in a hierarchical manner, although they are numbered.

1. Color Classification

The notion of color classification in the 6 fundamental hues, the achromatic hues and the colored greys is essential. It allows the student to refine his or her vision and perception of colors and to make choices and decisions (is it a blue-green or a green-blue?). It also enables one to approach the language of color in the proper sense of the term, that is, trying to name the color by what it contains rather than using esoteric terms that may have different meanings in the collective unconscious. From this basic classification will flow other fundamental aspects such as the lightness, the interaction of colors, the human senses and the additive synthesis.

Color classification becomes a playful installation (Student work)
Classifying colors according to warm and cold tones and seeing how they change with the addition of reference colors is a very instructive exercise (Student work)

2. Lightness

Lightness seems to me to be a fundamental point to address in the arrangement of hues.

Two contrasts are interesting in this respect: color contrast and value contrast.

The first emphasizes the balance of lightness between two interacting hues, the second the difference in lightness (the notion of light/dark or chiaroscuro).

To evaluate the proximity of color pair values (first column of each page) a black and white photocopy (second column) is made.

Our system eye/brain is not, a priori, conceived to perceive the various lightness through the colors, but rather the colors themselves. It is therefore quite complex to discern this color property because one must go beyond the perception of color. For example, a vermilion red is a very bright and strong color but it is not light at all; indeed, when we switch this color in achromatic value, it looks like a black gray.

Therefore, it seems to me that there is here, through a sum of practical exercises, a whole work to set up to train the eye/brain to perceive the lightness values and to leave behind the confusion saturation/lightness.

Light and dark colors not very saturated organized in the form of different contrasts; on the left: very important contrast of value; on the right, the colors are in a gradation of value: the lightest in the center (the white of the paper), the darkest at the edge.
Different types of gradients: sometimes the brightness is constant and only the saturation varies, sometimes both. On the left, gradients in the form of bands of rectangles of the same size; on the right, progressive desaturation by adding a gray of the same lightness as the central saturated hue.
Students learn to master color variations. Here, the variation in terms of hue, saturation and lightness is all in subtlety, the color changing gradually over the height of the painting (student work).
To achieve this mastery of color from basic colors, the student must acquire the skills to consciously control each of the three physical parameters of color: hue, saturation and lightness.
With his experience on the lightness and saturation of colors, the student can use this knowledge to create volumes in space or effects of light and transparency by arranging opaque colored papers (student work)

3. Interaction of Colors

Vast subject if it is…

“Influence that two colors have on each other when they are seen simultaneously”, Michel Eugène Chevreul, 1823.

Here we address several issues: the quality of a color, the quantity of a color and of course the question of simultaneity and successiveness of colors (i.e. how their perception is modified when they are seen simultaneously or successively).

By simultaneous contrast, we designate the phenomenon which makes that our eye, for a given color, requires at the same time, thus simultaneously, the complementary color and that it generates by itself if it is not given.

Color interaction and transparency illusion exercise using opaque papers: the student chooses a pair of “parent” colors (for the large outer shapes), and must find the “child” color (the small one in the center), which is also opaque, so that it gives the illusion that one of the large shades is transparent (student work).

Physiologically, it is proven that both the after image and the simultaneous effect indicate the remarkable fact that our eye/brain binomial, at a given color, requires its complementary and generates it by its own action (eye + brain) if it is not physically present. We can also speak here of retinal persistence. This phenomenon is of the utmost importance for all those who work with color.

On the question of quantity, I like to quote Henri Matisse: “One square centimeter of an ultramarine blue will never seem the same as one square meter of this same ultramarine blue”.

On the question of the quality of a color, we will work on three levels: the prismatic tints (these are the pure tints, resulting from the decomposition of white light), the attenuated tints (dirty tints , broken but which one can nevertheless still name as tint) and the chromatic greys (one cannot name them any more as tints; we see in a first time a grey and, in a second time, we distinguish the coloration of this grey).

The compositions of these two collages are identical, which creates an impression of familiarity; everyone will appreciate what the changes in color bring in terms of hue, saturation and clarity, as well as the new contrasts that result (student work).

4. The senses

We will also approach the different contrasts and other phenomena related to the psychology of colors, the perception of sound, the sensation of tastes and the translation by the color through small non-figurative compositions, privileging the color rather than any other representative form.

Taste and color association analysis in terms of hue, saturation and clarity suggesting the tastes of different chocolates.

5. Additive Synthesis

The additive synthesis approaches the light colors (RGB: red, green, blue) just like the subtractive synthesis, which we approach largely above (CMY: cyan, magenta, lemon yellow).

To do this, I made myself a small mixer for the color, allowing me to work with red, green and blue projectors, but also warm white and cold white. On this subject, I approach with them the question of the temperature of the whites (degree Kelvin), the temperature of a light source but also the question of CRI (Color Rendering Index) .

We also approach the question of colored shadows in a theoretical but also practical way, the modification of a material tint by a colored light source.

Studies on the additive synthesis. On top, left and right, studies of a transparent object under colored lights, in the middle, the same object in natural light. In the middle, another transparent object in natural light. Below, left and right, in the workshop, photographs of objects under colored lights (several light sources).

Working Tools

In terms of tools, I prefer colored papers at first, because they allow me to get to the essence of the color and its perception. Any other medium (paint) quickly leads to different problems regarding the color covering, the supports, the modifications of the lightness between the tint when it is liquid and once dry.

Colored paper cutouts to represent fruit from memory (including the complexity of lighting).

I base myself here on the methodology of teaching colors by Josef Albers (Interaction of colors, Yale university press, 1975).

Then and for certain specific exercises, we use gouache (primary colors, black and white).

Finally, to approach the chapter of harmonies of contrasts and harmonies of analogues, dear to Michel Eugène Chevreul, we use oil paint.

The specificity of my course

Through the pedagogy that I develop for the learning of colors, it is really important to me not to close any door as for the experimentation and the practice of color. The course is open to all artistic practices but also to people who have no practice at all and who, somehow, enter art through color.

Also, we will approach the question of the three-dimensionality, because the color in space is not the color on a surface, it induces differently the relation to the body, for example…

Three-dimensionality and the interaction of colors in the form of sculpture (student work).

It is important for me to be guided by a theoretical structure which frames my course while allowing regular displacements towards what is called “organoleptic”, i.e. the opening to the various senses which inhabit us.

Putting color in relation to hearing, smell, taste, tactile, memory (recollection) … and the way our unconscious retains things experienced. The color becomes a real tool of “translation” or “interpretation” of the perception.

To give you an example, I ask the students to make me a cloudless sky of a sunset when the sun has just left the horizon. They have to play the game, work, and draw on their respective memories because we have all seen sunsets over and over again. Generally speaking, the results are always convincing and very singular, which seems to me very important too since our feeling is our own. This work is done with their collection of colored papers.

Exercise of colorful transcription of a memory of sunset when the sun has just left the horizon (student work)

When the work is finished, we discuss it using different images of sunsets.

What is important to me through this learning process is to see how the students’ view of the world changes. After 6 months, they often tell me: “I don’t look at things the same way as before”.

I like to induce in this course the passage from “seeing” to “looking”, a bit like in music “hearing” and “listening”.


Naming 5 reference books seems to me a very complex task. Nevertheless, I am willing to play the game.

My choices are based on a selection but also on the affinity I have for these authors and what they have specifically contributed to the history of color.

As the class is given in French, the recommended readings are in French; some of them are nevertheless available in English. For the complete list, the readers will refer to the original article.

Josef Albers: Interaction of colors, revised edition, Yale University press, 1975.

The choice of Josef Albers is particularly close to my heart. It is for me one if not the best teaching of the color which ever existed. His methodology based on the modes of perception and interaction of colors seems to me most relevant – I adopt it partially in my courses. It is also a great economy of means since a pair of scissors, glue and colored papers are enough to learn color, contrasts and assimilation, among others.

J.W von Goethe: Goethe’s Theory of Colours (Illustrated Edition) Paperback – February 15, 2016

Ludwig Wittgenstein : Remarks on color, ‎ Wiley-Blackwell; 1st edition (January 8, 1991)

P.J. Bouma: Physical aspects of colour: An introduction to the scientific study of colour stimuli and colour sensations (Philips technical library) Hardcover – January 1, 1947

I recommend in the first place the reading of Georges Roques because he popularizes Chevreul’s theories making them accessible to all. Moreover, Roques contextualizes in relation to the history of painting, namely, the influence that Chevreul will have on the painters of his time, starting with Delacroix and then Cézanne, Monet, etc. However, to my knowledge, his books are not available in English.

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