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16 Lessons in Color Theory

Lesson #5

The first thing to do in learning the language of color is to learn all the definitions. I won't bore you with all of those again. If you have not studied my lesson on color terms go back and read the lesson on that subject. Then come back and complete this lesson.

COLOR PERSPECTIVE

We know that looking at objects, scenery, political or historical events in perspective helps us determine the total, over-all image and importance of whatever we are observing. In the pictorial arts, perspective is the optical, visual appearance of whatever we're planning to depict. We speak of two kinds of perspective: linear perspective and color perspective. Color perspective used to be called aerial perspective. The term aerial means everything pertaining to the air, the atmosphere. One might easily think that aerial perspective refers to the often staggeringly beautiful views we have from high flying airplanes. In art, therefore, it is better to speak of color perspective, unless you are referring to a bird's-eye view.

In reality, everything around us is three dimensional; in drawing and painting, however, we work on a two dimensional surface. We have to observe objects as if they were flat, like our paper or canvas. This isn't easy, because people have so-called "memory pictures" about which we have already talked at length; that is, they think of objects as they are in a diagrammatic form, straight in front of their eyes, like a building in an architectural drawing. In reality, we usually see things from an angle, rather than from straight ahead. From an angle, a round chair or plate looks elliptical; a square appears to lose all its right angles. Horizontal lines appear to slant upward or downward; all forms look smaller and smaller the farther away they are. By this time in our education, you should be keenly aware of these facts. If you are the slightest bit vague on this issue go back to the Basic Drawing series and study again.

This linear perspective was understood, theoretically at least, by the ancient Greeks. In practice, the Romans were the first to leave us murals in which perspective was employed with remarkable eye-catching effects. Then, as now, some artists knew more about perspective than others. The knowledge was lost during the Dark Ages, but, by the fourteenth century, Western artists had rediscovered the rules of linear perspective, and were able to render three dimensional space in their paintings.

Color perspective, which refers to changes caused by distance and atmospheric conditions, doesn't seem to have been grasped by artists until the late Middle Ages, when we first see an attempt at indicating distance by employing blue tones in the far background of paintings. Even then, the blue was the same all over a small section of the picture, with every tiny detail carefully drawn and painted. All around this small segment of bluish scenery, the painting was always equally strong in color, without any gradual diminishing of values towards the far background.

IS COLOR PERSPECTIVE IMPORTANT?

It may be interesting to note that even though a few basic principles of linear perspective were known to Far Eastern artists a long time ago, they never tried to go beyond them. Color perspective remained unnoticed in the greatest Oriental art until recent times, when artists of the East began to have access to Western art. Does this suggest that perspective in general, and color perspective in particular, can be of no real significance? Not at all!!

Oriental art differs from Western art just as Oriental music, manners, food, drama, and way of life do. In fact, color perspective may be more vital to the three dimensional kind of painting developed in the West than linear perspective, because, in the last analysis, it is the colors, the tonal values, that create the illusion of depth. This illusion of space is dear to the hearts of many abstract and nonobjective painters, as well as realistic artists.

The biggest role of color perspective is generally in landscape painting, because greater distances and spatial problems are encountered in these subjects than in figure painting. Nonetheless, even in figures and portraits, the background is important, whether it is a plain backdrop of color, such as a wall or curtain, or a more definite and complex background, such as the interior of a room, a garden, or the kind of romantic scenery Leonardo da Vinci painted behind the Mona Lisa. A background, whatever its nature, must look like something in back of the figure - not as if the figure were pasted on a sheet of cardboard, or, worse yet, as if the figure were merely looking through a hole in a wall or in a curtain.

DISTANCE AFFECTS ALL COLORS

Colors change as much as lines and shapes do, according to distance. Faraway hills and objects are not only smaller than similar objects closer to us, but they are also bluish. Very bright hues, such as orange and red, seem bright in the distance, too, but they are invariably lighter and hazier the farther away they are. An orange colored poster on a gray wall two hundred feet away may seem just as bright against the gray of the masonry as the same poster on the same kind of wall ten feet from you. Comparison, however, proves that both the gray wall and the orange colored poster in the distance are much hazier than the wall and poster nearby.

WEATHER AFFECTS ALL COLORS

On a cloudy, rainy day, all colors become grayish. Yet a red barn still appears to be red and grass still looks green, as long as there's enough light for you to see, and as long as you know what you're seeing. This is important to realize.

Beginners usually paint colors equally bright, no matter how far or how near they may be, and no matter what kind of weather they are painting. They simply go by the name of a hue and not by its actual appearance, its value. They'll paint the red barn, the green grass and foliage, as seen from close-by, in bright sunlight. Beginners merely paint the sky blue on a sunny day, gray on a rainy day, dark blue towards evening.

STUDYING COLOR PERSPECTIVE

The mental approach toward color perspective is identical with the approach to learning linear perspective. A beginner in painting sees a newspaper as he remembers it: a rectangular object. Remember that in earlier lessons we learned that one of the difficulties is that we KNOW too much about our subject, or THINK we do. At first it's difficult for him/her to believe that the rectangular paper looks different when you see it from an angle on a table. Artists must learn to see colors - as well as forms - from diverse viewpoints, in various lights, in different atmospheric conditions.

A distance of a few feet doesn't change colors in a noticeable manner. You need the outdoors for observing color differences. A view from the top of a hill over a vast panorama is the most striking proof of how hues are affected by distance and by weather. If at all possible, try to observe the same panorama on two different days: once on a bright, sunny day, and again on a gray, cloudy day. Take photographs of the same view on the two different occasions or, better yet, make color sketches, concentrating on shades of colors, rather than fine details.

Each row of hills or mountains is lighter in tone the farther it is from you, on any day. The last hill may be just a shade or two darker than the sky on a bright day; on an overcast day, it may literally blend into the sky. Details of rocks, meadows, houses, trees become vaguer and vaguer the farther away they are, and so do their colors. Each color becomes bluish, sometimes almost violet. You can still distinguish between a meadow and a wooded area, or between a winding road and a winding river, but distant scenery resembles something covered by smoke on a rainy day, covered by a light blue veil on a sunny day.

In a city, the differences in hues and values can best be appreciated on a straight avenue, where you notice that houses diminish in size and their colors diminish in intensity toward the opposite end. Buildings, however, are in so many colors - red, yellow, buff, gray, white, brown, in the United States, and many more in southern European towns - that comparison is not easy for the untrained eye. A brown house in the distance looks darker than a white house nearby. You must compare a red, brown, or gray house in the distance with a house of the same color closer to where you stand.

EXERCISE IN COLOR PERSPECTIVE

Remember what I have often said: "A large part of the job of an art teacher is to teach the student to SEE." So, if there is any way you can, carry out the next exercise. Take three or four sheets each of red, yellow, medium blue, and black cardboard or posterboard, 28" by 44", or 30" by 40" in size, and set up one of each next to the other, close to where you are standing, in a garden, a meadow, or on a fairly straight country road. Set up another group, in the same order, fifty feet away; another group a hundred feet away, and so forth. You might lean them against rocks, or stakes, in such a manner that you can see all the cards clearly from where you are.

Now observe them honestly. By this, I mean forget that they are exactly the same sets. Don't listen to your memory (left hemisphere) telling you: "They're the same....they're the same...." Use your eyes. All the information you need is right before your eyes. The colors are identical in fact, but not visually. They are lighter and hazier, the farther away they are. The degree of brightness between objects of the same hue decreases with distance in the same proportion as sizes do. This is vital knowledge.

COLOR PERSPECTIVE IN HOUSES AND FIGURES

If you know anything about linear perspective, you won't paint a house and a figure as large in the background as you would in the middleground or foreground. You know that if a figure can walk through the door of a house nearby, the figure farther back can also walk through the door of the house in front of which it is supposed to be standing. The house, the door, and the figure are equally smaller in the distance.

The differences in colors are as great as the differences in size. If both houses are pink, and the doors and shutters of both are green, and both figures are dressed in red jackets and blue slacks, you must observe, and paint the perspective in colors as well. In other words, each color will be lighter the farther it is from you.

COLOR PERSPECTIVE IN FOLIAGE

Probably the most difficult subject from the viewpoint of color perspective seems to be a forest, or any scenery with a great deal of trees and foliage. Green foliage and green grass look plain green to the untrained eye; lighter where the sun hits them, darker in the shade. It's easy to see the color differences in unusually light-and-bright-hued young trees, and, of course, you can distinguish trees with maroon or reddish foliage. But there's much more difference between greens than you realize. You must learn to render the diverse shades of green not only lighter and darker, but reddish, yellowish, whitish, bluish, and grayish greens as well. If you don't learn these nuances, your forest will resemble a piece of material, a curtain, hanging straight down, instead of going back deep into the distance; your trees will look like green drapery thrown over wooden hatracks.

Take what we have studied today and try to put it to practice in your art or practice paintings. I will try to "catch up" a little in time as I was rather late getting this lesson on line. Look for me again soon. Till then.....