Looking at Color

When we look at color, especially paintings about color, we sometimes get the feeling that we're not seeing as well as we could. What's missing?

Everybody loves color and can even get emotional about it. But at the same time everybody's color perception is ordinarily poor, incomplete, or partial, not by defect, but by mode, our every-day ordinary energy-saving visual mode.

There are those odd times though, when our full color perception mode kicks in accidentally, or because we need it for survival or for professional purposes, or because we intend it and have learned what other aspects of color we can include in our perception. Then, color perception can be rich, complete, impartial or whole (which feels like a feast instead of a snack).

Then we see all three color aspects at once: the color's hue, its degree of luminosity (how light or dark), and its degree of intensity or singularity. All three are then perceived, felt, and known.

The three elemental examples of partial color perception are:

  1. Hue awareness, while discounting that hue's degree of luminosity or intensity, for example, those moments when we see “red” (and even then only approximately) ignoring the perception of how light or dark the red is or how intense or muted it is.
  2. Luminosity awareness, moments when we're only "seeing" (that is, reacting to) how dark or light a color is and not seeing well that color's hue or intensity.
  3. Intensity awareness, when we predominantly only see how strong or weak a color is, and need to pay more attention to that color's hue and luminosity in order to really see that color.

Our perceptual awareness, when it's engaged, is drawn to one or another of these three aspects, sometimes two, sometimes all three even (but very rarely), shifting unconsciously as needed. And when we need to analyze a color, we confuse and conflate the three aspects of color, not seeing clearly their radical difference. We don't know that we need to discriminate between them, and so we don't know that we need to work at trying.

Learning to see these 3 (mutually exclusive) aspects at once takes practice, and takes a lot of energy, but you might like to try, because full color experience is peculiarly satisfying even though it is exhausting and leaves you feeling two-thirds color blind when you're not making the effort.

Worse, when you want this full color perception, you must give up preferring some "colors" (only partially seen) and hating others, for you can only hate one aspect of a color, not a whole color, it seems, hate being blind, like 'love'.

Complete color perception is also needed, as I'm sure you already suspected, if you want to modify a color in order to bring it into the relationship you want with other colors in any kind of visual art (painting, film, architecture, theatre, clothing design, graphic design, illustration…).

Let's go into these three parts that make up a color or a color relationship a bit further. The first aspect we call 'hue'.

Nine Prismatic Hues and Their Mixtures with Each Other

The hues, in prismatic order from slowest to fastest vibrating, are red, orange, yellow, yellow-green, thalo green, thalo blue, cobalt blue, purple, violet, or a hue on the continuums between any two of these. (The word 'prismatic' means 'resembling the spectrum of colors you see when light is refracted through a prism—crystal or liquid—displaying the hues which are the constituents of white light).

Any of these countless hues can be rendered in many different degrees of luminosity (from very light to very dark) and in many different intensities (from very high intensity to very low), but 'hue' does not refer to how light, dark, or intense, but only what kind of color: what hue. It takes all three aspects to make a color, therefore 'red' is not a color, but only one aspect, the hue, of some partially defined color.

Luminosity Scale of Prismatic Colors

The second aspect of any color is its luminosity, how light or dark it is, as if laid next to a gray scale.

"Prismatic" (fully intense) colors naturally fall on a luminosity spectrum from light to dark—from yellow, the lightest, to blue-purple (opposite yellow), the darkest, on both sides of this 'spectrum of prismatic luminosity': the warm red-orange side and the cool blue-green side.

Any prismatic hue can be made lighter by adding white pigment or white light; and darker by adding black pigment or less light, while leaving the hue the same, but of course lessening the color's intensity. Here are three examples:

Luminosity & Intensity Variations of Three Hues

Here, representatives of all luminosity and intensity variations are shown for the hues yellow, orange, and red.

Using the red chart as an example: 1) the hue of all of those colors is red; 2) the luminosity of those reds ranges from very light red at the top through medium red to very dark red at the bottom; and 3) the intensity of these reds ranges from very low, next to the gray scale on the left, to high on the right, with the single highest intensity at only one point which is at a different height (luminosity) for each hue (as you can see on the preceding orange and yellow charts).

Before we can impartially assess (the work of seeing) a color we have to assess the partial aspects of each color: what hue it seems to be (like "red"); then second its degree of luminosity: light red, medium red, or dark red. And third, its intensity: high, moderate, or low (as red as possible, moderately red, or just barely red).

Only then can we asses a color relationship: what is the action/reaction between the different aspects of the two colors in relationship: what is the difference between their hues? What is the difference between their luminosities? And what is the difference between their intensities? Then we have a chance of relaxing our assessment and seeing all three parts of the color relationship together. In which of the three ways are the two colors reacting and in which way are the colors blending? How does that look? How does that feel?

Each aspect plays an important role in making a color relationship feel the way it does. When looking at any composition of colors, ‘accidental’ or 'intentional', your viewing and feeling is enhanced by noticing and feeling the three relative differences between the colors.

But let me not disparage small partial views (perceptual snacks). I love them, too. I'm just saying that if we don't also go to the trouble to seek out larger more whole views we will eventually become discouraged angry pessimists, feeling that life has no meaning. Preparing for a feast, visual or any other kind, is a lot of trouble, but work is enjoyable, too, don't you think?

William Tapley
Art of Color