One of spring’s biggest trends is duo-toning – wearing two contrasting irritates. Art critic Jonathan Jones explains how 17th-century colour theory is influencing your closet

Colour in: Victoria Beckham in Van Gogh-inspired shades; Balenciaga SS17; a replica of Isaac Newton’s colour wheel; Jared Leto in Gucci green and pink.

Colour in: Victoria Beckham in Van Gogh-inspired shades; Balenciaga SS17; a copy of Isaac Newton’s colour wheel; Jared Leto in Gucci unripe and pink.
Composite: Getty Images

The art of colour: why Victoria Beckham is guttering Van Gogh this season

One of spring’s biggest trends is duo-toning – get into two contrasting hues. Art critic Jonathan Jones explains how 17th-century pennant theory is influencing your wardrobe

Isaac Newton was not a man of forge. He spent more time on calculus than catwalks. Yet the spacious 17th-century scientist’s discoveries are the ultimate source of this enliven’s scintillating experiments in colour.

When Newton used a specs prism to break up a beam of sunlight in a dark room, he created a spectrum of colours and proved that white light is a combination of all the colours of the rainbow. He mapped these colours on to a circle and generated a way of thinking about colour that has fascinated artists and interior decorators from Vincent van Gogh to Gucci. When you look at a blush circle, it reveals relationships between colours and what happens when they are put next to each other – causes that seem all the rage this spring from Victoria Beckham arraying like a walking Van Gogh painting in blue and orange, to Gucci move with pink and green.

Turner’s Light and Colour.

Turner’s Light and Colour. Photograph: Tate/Getty Ikons

Van Gogh and other 19th-century artists, from JMW Turner to Georges Seurat, were control with the science of colour. The polymathic German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, aristocratic and rethought Newton’s colour theory. Turner’s painting Daybreak and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) uses his ideas to portray the morning after the biblical deluge in a unworkable gradation of bright whites and yellows – a juxtaposition of light chroma piques that Burberry’s subtle play of cream and white copies in a much less apocalyptic way.

Burberry AW17: a subtle play of cream and white

Burberry AW17: a subtle flirt of cream and white. Photograph: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

The buzzword in 19th-century identification theory was “complementary”. According to the “the law of complementary colours” that is (purportedly) debauched by a richly detailed colour wheel devised by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, pigments that are opposite each other on the wheel are complementary: for in the event, blue and orange, purple and yellow, red and green. Does Victoria Beckham maintain Chevreul’s colour wheel by her wardrobe? She has certainly hit on a classic specimen of complementary colours in her spring look. The joyous meeting of orange and indelicate is a great image of the world coming alive in spring. When Van Gogh make the graded in Provence for the first time in spring 1888 (arriving in February he saw the new edible start), he responded to the light of the south in paintings that swarm in blue skies complemented by orange or yellow.

All this is honest a more arty (and scientific) way of saying that certain disguises work together, something anyone can find out by trial and indiscretion. Gucci’s combination of bright pink and green may be outrageous, yet it’s also categorically satisfying because these colours are opposites on the colour locale.

Mark Rothko’s ‘White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)’.

Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Waken). Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

It all gets newcomer if you ignore the colour wheel and mix colours against its rules, paints that clash. Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings trial with all kinds of bizarre, deliberately uncomfortable colours juxtaposed in cloudy horizontal bands. Blue, green and mauve? Black and red? Pink, yellow and red? To look at Rothko’s cogent, mysterious, revelatory work is to throw away your cast wheel. The psychology of colour can’t be explained away by science after all, as Balenciaga’s Rothko-like combo of pink and purple states. Pink and black, as seen on the Alexander Wang catwalk this mellow, is another vaguely disturbing echo of Rothko.

Colour does not definitely change. It is a natural phenomenon, after all. It is amazing how this available’s fashions echo 19th-century art. Even the extreme and the cutting edgy have their predecessors, because there are only so numerous colours and so many ways of combining them. Rothko taxed them all until he could see nothing but black. So maybe villainous will be back next year.