Understanding color

What is color theory and how does it apply to art?  The answer to this question is very controversial as there are numerous schools of thought on the “right” way to approach color.  The bottom line is that every artist interprets color differently and the choices that he or she makes in choosing one color over another are based largely on aesthetics, and perception but also physchological intuition.  This is why color serves more than one purpose in art and why so many color theories have developed over the years.  I will only touch briefly on color theory in this blog, as I am more concerned (for the purposes of teaching) with it’s perceptual applications to painting rather than it’s phsychological ramifications.  For those interested in delving further into this topic, there are many great books devoted to it.

Color is apparent only where there is light.  Without light, color would not exist.  In previous blogs I wrote of the importance of value contrasts to describe form.  Take that same concept and apply it to a colored object. If one were to take a red ball, for example, and shine a spotlight on it, a light side and shadow side would be apparent.  The true red color however, would only appear in the transition somewhere between the shadow and highlight.  This is known as the local color.  In a tonal representation this area would be a mid-tone. The highlight would be washed out and shift in value.  In painting, the simplest way to achieve this lighter variation would be to add white to the red body of color.  This would be considered a tint of the red.  To create the darker variation of shadow, black would be the most obvious choice.  This would be considered a shade.  This type of painting would be similar to a standard grisaille (with the exception of one additional color) and, though tonally balanced, it would still fail to accentuate the lighting effect. Color contrasts are needed to mimic the enchanting qualities of light and atmosphere that are unattainable with only value.

Different light sources will influence the appearance of colors.  If one were to take an incandescent light and shine it on a red ball, the light side would appear to be somewhat orange.  That is because the nature of incandescent light is very yellow.  Take that same red ball, and put it outside on an over-cast day, and the light side would appear to be more of a violet.  This occurs because natural light in contrast to incandescent light has a much “cooler” appearance which leads me to my next point; all colors are relative to their environment.  That is why there is no one formula to mixing colors.  Every portrait, figure, still life and landscape will call upon different color mixtures based upon the way that they are lit and their surrounding environment.

Shadows are key in accentuating the illusion of light.  Rarely will shadows be absent of  light.  If that were the case they’d be completely black.  On the contrary, they reflect many of the colors in their environment.  That is because ambient light reflects off of other objects and gets “absorbed” by the shadow.  When this takes place it is referred to as reflective light.  To demonstrate this phenomenon, take an egg and place it on a red table cloth.  Shine a spotlight on top allowing the shadow to fall along the bottom half.  You will notice that the shadow absorbs the reflectivity of  the red cloth.  Now place the egg on a blue tablecloth and observe the changes.  What happens in the non-shadow portion of the egg is less influenced by the environmental changes.  That is because the rays of the direct light or primary light source overpower the environmental changes.

Painters who understand how the nature of light effects color have unlimited possibilities for invention.  They can make choices to enhance the reality that is presented to them, or even create an imagined environment in their paintings that portray all of the magical qualities that light offers.

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