How Important is Precise Colour Selection?

(Thomas Baden-Riess) #1

I’m absolutely hopeless with matching my paint colours with those in my reference photo/objects. In fact at times my methodology doesn’t feel much better than ‘straight from the bottle’.

I have often tried to improve my matching abilities but it always ends in frustration. Sometimes it seems impossible to get the right colours. Skin tone would be a good example. No matter how many times I mix, no matter in what various directions I try to take the colour, I never can seem to get close to a match.

Here are three major problems I come up against.

  1. Because of adjacent, surrounding colours, the colour looks different in isolation than it does on the canvas in proximity to some other colour.
  2. The paint’s colour feels as if it changes when it is in a thick glob on the palette to when it is thinly spread on the canvas.
  3. Because I paint several layers one on top of the other, and in particular because I paint colour on top of a black and white underpainting, the colour I apply to the canvas is always going to be modified by what is beneath it anyway.

Now as much as I want to improve my colour matching skills, there is another school of thought within me. And that is that exact colour matchings are not particularly relevant.

This idea stems from the fact that in the end, despite a sense that I was way out with my colour matchings between painting and reference during the execution, my final painting seemed reasonably realistic.

But also, as Anthony has pointed out many times, with many different illusions (e.g. the blue strawberries [http://anthonywaichulis.com/a-rose-by-any-other-color/], or our inability to accurately describe the colours on a Rubik’s cube etc) we are very weak when it comes to colour determination.

From these optical illusions, can’t we extract a moral of the story along the lines that we needn’t care too much about precise colour details?

As was mentioned in this talk What Does Realistic Look Like (can’t find the link anymore sorry), the eye didn’t evolve to be precise, it evolved to keep people alive and able to survive and thrive in the environment in which they were in.

But when I think about it, I can’t think of any life or death situations where humans are reliant on being able to highly discriminate colours. Similarly I can’t think of situations where the ability to judge colour to the nth degree would have been advantageous (though I’m happy to be proved wrong here, if someone can think of some examples).

Let’s take the issue of berries for example. Yes it might be important to discriminate between ripe red berries and unripe green ones, but this hardly requires any profound level of colour discrimination.

Another example that I thought might counter my arguments would be camouflage. If we think of a crocodile hiding on a bank, we might be tempted to think that our ancestors might have evolved to pick up on minute colour differences between the crocodile and the grass/bush/vegetation that surrounds it.

However grass/bush/vegetation comes in all shades of green and brown. So I would therefore conclude that when a crocodile is camouflaged it’s not because its colour precisely matches its surroundings. In fact this suggests that a crocodile can be camouflaged precisely because humans are not great at colour discrimination.

Indeed, when we spot a crocodile hiding in the bushes what comes to the fore in my eye is that we recognise its key features: precisely those, I believe, that we would represent by a line drawing of it, which again comes back to what Anthony has often said about our eyes being drawn to areas of change, e.g. edges and boundaries etc.

croc

Another aspect to this issue is the following. Last year I did a painting of a teddy in a sweater. The sweater was brown but in the painting I changed it to blue because I had a nice blue that I wanted to incorporate. Now the question is, is there anything wrong with this?

Here’s the thing. How would anyone know the difference? Sweaters come in all colours. So why would anyone care if the colour had been modified from reference to finished work?

I suppose a counter argument to that would be that the blue sweater is a (very, very weak) light source and therefore the (very weak) light it radiates will affect the surrounding objects. But then, if they themselves don’t have ‘fixed, standard’ colours I wonder how relevant that really is.

I think it would be appropriate to use the term canonical colour of an object (unless there is another term in use) to describe the ‘normal, standard’ colour of a given object.

Thus apples are red, yellow and green, the sea is blue, green, grey etc.

However it seems obvious to me that most objects don’t have a canonical colour. Furthermore, those that do – like apples for example – often show great variance between at least a couple of different hues. Moreover, given that the light falling on the apple can change dramatically, I’m tempted to say that it really shouldn’t matter too much what the colour of the apple is.

Because the observer of your art work doesn’t know the colour of the reference apple nor either the lighting of the original setting, there is surely great scope to be careless.

For example, suppose I get taken to court because my apple is accused of being too green. Now technically this might be completely true. I might look at my reference apple and think yes, it should be a yellower shade of green. However, I’m not in trouble, because even if I admit that the colour of the apple is too green (and I don’t even have to do this, because I can just claim it was a very green apple in the reference ) I can just say that the lighting was such that the apple took on that aspect of green.

But ever further, is there anyone who doesn’t know what this is?

blueapple

It seems to me that in this day and age, we are very familiarised with seeing any object in any colour. A blue apple might have seemed strange to someone from the 18th century but to us, it’s hardly a big loss of realism.

In fact I would say that the Dutch masters could have gotten away with blue apples in their works such was the skill of their handiwork otherwise. The only situations where I could imagine a blue apple being problematic might be in impressionism and other loose genres, where line work is often minimal.

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(Anthony Waichulis) #2

What a great topic Thomas—thank you for putting this forward. Color “matching” can be an incredibly daunting task for a visual artist. There are so many variables to consider that it can truly seem to be a Sisyphean task. Even the term “precise color” can seem almost meaningless quite a few contexts involving visual representation. However, there are steps we can take to find a path to what we might see as effective color matching. Let’s look at some of your problems as you have laid them out:

1. Because of adjacent, surrounding colours, the colour looks different in isolation than it does on the canvas in proximity to some other colour.

Absolutely. Color is not a property of the environment but is rather a visual experience arising from the distribution of light intensity across the visible spectrum of electromagnetic energy. It is a product of a biological vision system interacting with the spectral composition of visible light that is emitted, transmitted, or reflected by the environment. As such, speaking of color in terms like “precise” do not make much sense as the biological systems responsible for the experience do not operate via accurate or precise measurement. Our perceptions have evolved for fitness—not veridicality.

For example, let’s take a look at what type of stimuli might initiate a cascade of neural activity that results in a perception of yellow. Exposure to a wavelength that is about 570-590 may initiate such a cascade. However, due to the nature of our visual system, exposure to a wavelengths at about 495–570 nm and 625–700nm (+/-)—what we might perceive as red and green light (minus blue), can do the same thing (think of your average RGB computer screen.) BUT—we can ALSO find an experience of yellow without ANY of that due to perceptual adaptation (color constancy). One of the contributing mechanisms to color constancy is what is known as chromatic adaptation. Chromatic adaptation influences the perception of a particular color within the context of its surroundings .Therefore we don’t need any of the aforementioned stimuli to generate an experience of yellow—just the right context. You can see this for yourself in the sunflower example in the above image. This latter mechanism is doing much of the heavy lifting where your palette mixtures, and applications, and reference material seem to differ significantly even after careful mixing. The contexts are all likely vastly different.

Now while this may seem to make your job even MORE Sisyphean–it really shouldn’t. While these mechanisms are not fully understood by any means—we know enough to make some pretty good (useful) predictions . In my process, it’s not a matter find perfect color matches. Rather, it’s a matter of building a context that results in a percept that I intend based in available materials. This sometimes means not achieving that “precise” color match.

For a little more on this I have this post here: From Palette to Canvas - Color in "Context"

In my experience, with my goals, the most effective starting point has almost always been the establishment of anchors that “calibrate” my palette to the observed subject. Anchors are often the darkest darks, lightest lights, or highest chroma paints that I have access to. They are often NOT mixtures, but something straight from the tube. I apply these marks first. I can then begin to add marks that appear to relate to the anchors in a manner that is reasonably similar to the relationships perceived during the observation of my subject (often with techniques like dynamic squinting). In a sense, I am solving for “x” from a number of given values/anchors (shown here as k and e). I then continue to add subsequent marks–building outwards from the anchors–to establish a growing context that I can feel reasonably confident in.


In the subject grid above the palette here, you can see two anchors that I would be likely to apply to my canvas first (e and k) in an attempt to solve for “x” (and beyond.) Can you quickly spot two more that could be applied to increase confidence in “x”?

2. The paint’s colour feels as if it changes when it is in a thick glob on the palette to when it is thinly spread on the canvas.

Again, absolutely. A dense blob of color may seem quite different in appearance from the same color spread out onto a surface (especially a bright reflective one.) Contending with this comes from experience. I would also recommend our Language of Painting Color Chart. The chart will help you to get into the ballpark for certain colors with your available gamut. Some have even subdivided the chart’s cells so that each cell contains a single-layered section and a multiple-layer opaque section. The disparity in appearance between such sections will be quite significant for translucent/transparent colors.


Related link: https://www.smartermarx.com/t/lop-basic-color-chart/228

While we are on the topic of opacity and appearance, you might find this video from Winsor&Newton informative:

3. Because I paint several layers one on top of the other, and in particular because I paint colour on top of a black and white underpainting, the colour I apply to the canvas is always going to be modified by what is beneath it anyway.

Definitely. Again, see that above video from Winsor&Newton. Continued experience will get you to a place where you can make better predictions (including predictions re: opacity/appearance.) You just have to keep practicing (deliberately).

As to your comment: “ Now as much as I want to improve my colour matching skills, there is another school of thought within me. And that is that exact colour matchings are not particularly relevant….From these optical illusions, can’t we extract a moral of the story along the lines that we needn’t care too much about precise colour details?”

Now generally speaking, I do not aim for “exact color matches.” I try to get into the ballpark based on my available materials (see anchors above) and do my best to maintain similar relationships to those observed in my subject (allowing some room for creative license.)

As to this: “ Another aspect to this issue is the following. Last year I did a painting of a teddy in a sweater. The sweater was brown but in the painting I changed it to blue because I had a nice blue that I wanted to incorporate. Now the question is, is there anything wrong with this?

Here’s the thing. How would anyone know the difference? Sweaters come in all colours. So why would anyone care if the colour had been modified from reference to finished work?”

Not at all. There is no reason that you cannot change the color of an element in a work as long as the the context is adapted to the change. For example, if I change one of the orange sphere on the right to blue—the context no longer in accordance with it. I would have to modify the surrounding context to marry the subject and its environment.

One more thing you might like to look into is the Color Matching software from Zsolt. You can use the software to make some pretty goof predictions about colors represented in a number of ways. Check it out here: RESOURCE:Zsolt Color Mixing Tools

Ok that’s enough rambling from me. Hope some of this helps Thomas!

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(Tom Mulliner) #3

I teach my students that colour is just an added bonus to realism.

If you break it down a bit, it’s obvious! Just like your blue apple - we understand that image to represent an apple even though it’s not the correct colour for any type of apple. The same goes if you extract ALL of the colour - we still understand the imagery. So how do we still know it’s an apple? What’s left?

Tone - the interaction of light and shadow (lack of light) on a 3d form.
Texture - the patterning, appearance, or consistency of a surface.

Tone tells us something about the 3d depicted form and texture tells us about the type of represented surface on those forms within our artwork.
So when using colour, the correct hue is not important but the chroma (saturation), tone and texture is in order to obtain realism.

Below are some examples of the importance of tone compared to ONLY hue! in terms of obtaining representationalism in art.

13primacy

Gurney_colour_demo

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(Thomas Baden-Riess) #4

Thanks very much Anthony that is very helpful. In fact it reminds me that I started reading Margaret Livingstone’s book ‘Vision and Art’ back in 2016 on your recommendation. I must get that finished this summer.

In terms of solving the little problem given above, in terms of which other colours should be placed around x in order to solve for it: I would say one obvious answer is white.

The second colour I’m struggling with. But I’m going to say the green h, should be put in the second from bottom square on the right?

As for the computer programme, should I send you an email still? Or is it now available elsewhere?

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(Thomas Baden-Riess) #5

Thanks for the reply Tom. I simply can’t believe how meaningless those images are where only hue and chroma are delineated. It’s remarkable, although I shouldn’t really be surprised since I’ve come to find that by painting in black and white first and then ‘colouring in’, you are nine tenths of the way to being done after the initial black and white stage.

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(Anthony Waichulis) #6

Hey Thomas! Yes–white is definitely one I would use (a.) The other one I would use, that is closest to a perceptual “match” right out of the tube would be the ult. blue (g) in the upper left adjacent to the x.

As to the program, you must email Zsolt directly. Directions should be on his site here: http://zsolt-kovacs.unibs.it/colormixingtools

You can also try the online version here: http://sensuallogic.com/paintmaker

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(Thomas Baden-Riess) #7

Yes sorry, I can see that that blue would be a good choice. I think I got side tracked by trying to pick a colour directly adjacent to x, but yes obviously the blue is a match colour wise and the green is not.

Thanks for the info on how to get Zsolt!

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