Colour must firstly be understood as something that is constantly interacting with its surroundings. It is the most relative medium in art.
This visual phenomenon has fascinated scientists and colourists alike - Sir Isaac Newton first discovered the effects of bending light to allow the human eye to see the spectrum and then plotted the first colour wheel.
Interestingly, Newton drew the parallel between the 7 colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and the 7 notes of music.
Joseph Albers, Albert Munsell, Johannes Itten have contributed a huge amount to the study of colour and colour mixing.
A lesser known fact is that our minds eye is constantly attempting to consolidate colours into an equilibrium, otherwise the image is not restful or pleasing.
We involuntarily seek an inner order to things.
Our eye seeks to consolidate pigment colour into a neutral, balanced gray. If this balance is not present in a painting, the eye is not at rest. This can be compared to how we hear music. When a piece of music is played and an incorrect note is struck, even the untrained can hear immediately that it is not right.
(My thoughts immediately go to the late comedian Les Dawson’s piano routines.)
Colour triads that work harmoniously in a painting, if used in the correct proportions, are restful if, when mixed, produce a middle grey.
Paint pigment is subtractive – meaning the more colour you add, the less ‘’light’’ you will depict, until, with enough mixing, you reach black.
Conversely, light is additive – when all of the spectrum is combined, you have light.
When light is split - as we know from Newton’s experiments with the prism, the colours can be identified individually.
When we perceive a physical object as being red, our eyes are doing something amazing:
The object is absorbing all of the other colours of the spectrum except for red.
Our eye sees red, because that is the part of the light spectrum that the object is not absorbing.
You could say that red is being reflected or bounced back, or perhaps more anecdotally, our eye is actually completing the spectrum in its search for that equilibrium.
Just as the eye seeks for a middle grey in pigment (an imitation of light), the eye seeks pure, or white light as the equilibrium of the spectrum – true ‘light’ colour, if you will.
The science of this goes further by comparing frequency, wavelengths and vibration
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” Nikola Tesla.
But this is beyond the scope of this article.
Needless to say, the idea of this equilibrium is important in painting. Incidentally, this rule can, depending on ones temperament, be used to create a discordant note by purposely creating an unbalanced or uneasy effect.
‘In a similar way as a haptic sensation deceives us, so optical illusions deceive’
It is definitely worth noting that when discussing colour, classification is very limited for the endless different tones, hues, tints, shades and chromatic greys.
This point is made by the American-German Artist Josef Albers (Resources and further reading at the end)
Factual identifications of colour, he states, ‘’within a given painting has nothing to do with a sensitive seeing nor with an understanding of the colour action within the painting.’’
Drawing the comparison with how, in writing, a knowledge of spelling has nothing to do with an understanding of poetry.
The nomenclature of colour is extremely limited in scope when it comes to colour.
Albers begins his book by describing how differently a room of 50 people will interpret the word red as a picture in their mind, and even when presented with a popular logo, such as the red and white of coke-a-cola, each person will think of many different reds.
Added to this difficulty in classification is the fact that out of this same room of 50 people, some might be more inclined towards warmer hues and others cooler, some more muted colours, others brighter and vibrant and so on.
It is futile therefor to concern ourselves with classifications, not least because a colour would have to exist in a laboratory condition of complete isolation from any other colour to prevent any simultaneous effects.
We all have a different interpretation of what one specific colour might be. What’s more, colour, particularly subtle variations of it, can be quite subjective to the personal sensitivities and tastes of the artist or viewer.
There is, however, more or less a middle ground that can be reached that will appeal to the mases, if one is concerned with that.
It is more important that an understanding and sensitivity of how colour interacts is developed
It will be this understanding that will allow us to fine tune paintings to the exact and rare colour combinations of our own choosing.
Consider the following experiment as a useful analogy of the effects of interaction.
Take 3 bowls of water: Hot on the left, cold on the right and luke warm in the middle.
If you were to place your left hand in the hot and your right in the cold for a few moments and then place both hands in the middle bowl of luke warm water you would experience a cooler sensation in your left hand and a warmer sensation in your right hand.
This is a psychic effect called a haptic illusion, making us believe that something that is factually one temperature, is simultaneously 2 temperatures.
In a similar way as a haptic sensation deceives us, so optical illusions deceive. We are lead to believe – to ‘’see’’ or to ‘’read’’ other colours from those which are being physically presented. This is an incredibly significant point.
Listed below are the 7 types of contrast that can be used in colour mixing.
Introducing the 7 colour contrasts
Simultaneous or Successive contrast: the effect of two colours on one another (each pushing the other towards their own compliments).
Successive contrast is the optical after image that is formed when we stare at one colour and then close our eyes. The after image is the compliment and appears ‘’behind’’ our eyes when we close them.
A similar experiment can be done, as follows: Try staring at the red square below for 1 minute without blinking, then again without blinking, move your eyes to the white square and stare for a moment. The after image will appear and for me is a bright turquoise (green) cast. Green being the compliment to red.
Simultaneous contrast works in the same way, the afterimage of one colour has an effect on its neighbour. If you place two direct complements next to each other, one will pump the other and vice versa, simultaneously so that they seem to vibrate off the page.
Place 2 more colours in between and the simultaneous effect is altered. The green begins to take on an orange cast (the compliment to blue) and the red is pushed toward violet (the compliment of yellow)
Contrast of light and dark: Hues that have been tinted (white added) vs ones that have been toned (compliment ‘gray’ or black and white ‘grey’ added), or shaded (black added)
This yellow green is tinted on the top half, and toned on the bottom half. Notice also the black and white grey surround acts as a host for the compliment of yellow green which is a reddish violet. Subtle, but there.
Contrast of cool and warm: Violets and blues and blue greens are cool, reds oranges and yellows are warm. Each colour has a warm and cool side. Below is an orange and blue of equal tone (light or dark)
Contrast of saturation: A fully saturated colour vs one that has been tinted, toned, or shaded. The centre blue below is fully saturated, the surrounding shades of blue are degraded in some way and thus support and accentuate the center blue making it gem like.
Contrast of extension: A small dot of yellow will seem brighter when surrounded in a sea of violet.
Contrast of compliments: Direct compliments on the colour wheel e.g Blue and Orange or more subtle triads and even quadrants on the colour wheel. A split complimentary can be red-orange, yellow-orange, blue.
Contrast of hue: Using adjacent colours analogously. This can be done in small steps to depict a gradation or a glowing effect, or with larger steps to give a bolder more contrasting effect. Yellow, Blue, Red would be extreme contrast (in fact, a primary triad). More subtle would be yellow, yellow orange, orange.
Most people can identify the difference in high or low tone between two notes of music being played.
Much less easily, Albers points out, can people identify the difference between the tone (lightness or darkness) of a colour.
To identify the light and dark of a black and white image is easier, but when attempting to do this with colour, it is more difficult.
The effects of colour make it more difficult to tell whether it is lighter or darker to its neighbour, especially if the tone difference is subtle
This is something that should be practiced in order to develop a sensitivity.
The first challenge as illustrated in Joseph Albers book, is to make one colour appear as two. This builds on the analogy of the luke warm water and gives us a tangible effect that will aid our understanding.
The image below, especially if looking roughly in the middle of the two illustrations, shows the interactive nature of the center colour.
Without any pre-knowledge of the subject, it would be difficult to argue that both center rectangles are the same. But they are.
What’s more, with our eyes rested in the middle ground between the two examples, the central colour on the bottom illustration begins to adopt the outer colour of the top and the centre part of the top illustration darkens to resemble the outer colour of the bottom.
This was created in Photoshop but a similar thing can be done with any other simple paint programme or even with cut outs from magazines.
Avoid the use of paint for this so that experiments can be done quickly and accurately without a lot of waste.
Many more examples are supplied in the link below.
I strongly advise you to take a look and work through all of the exercises in the excellent and interactive application which is based on Josef Albers’ Interaction of Colour.
Free trial for Apple.
Interaction of Colour at Yale University