Long time readers of this blog know that I am nuts about colour. I’ve just ordered a new bunch of colours from an art supply store (Australian-made Derivan Matisse Structure Acrylics – they have a wonderful colour range). I take delivery of the package on Tuesday and can hardly wait. I just love getting new tubes of colour. Yes, I know you can mix just about any colour out of the primaries and white or black, but the premixes are wonderful shortcuts and allow you to immediately place them on the canvas, without having to devise and refine them on your palette. Besides, in pure physical terms, different pigments emit different wavelengths of light, due to their quantum physical properties as chemical compounds, so mixing from primaries is always just an approximation. There is no red quite like cadmium red, believe me.
Today I watched an interesting popular science programme on the perception of colour and it had some startling new research, which raises some interesting questions for painters (thanks go to brilliant Derbyshire artist Rachael Pinks for bringing the programme to my attention).
It has recently been discovered that your eye has a sort of cell that isn’t involved in seeing colour; it’s involved in regulating your body clock and circadian rhythms. These cells are called photo sensitive ganglion cells. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photosensitive_ganglion_cell
The interesting effect of these cells is that if you turn on a blue light, emitting light in the wavelengths that the cells respond to, you can wake yourself up and make yourself feel more alert. The blue sky is something we have evolved to recognise as a signal for wakefulness. You can actually make yourself more awake and alert by turning on blue light. If you look at the daylight bulbs that art supply stores sell, you will notice that they have a distinct blue cast. This is a good thing. The same effect works in music studios. Neil Finn was right to install colour changing lighting in his Auckland recording studio. It has important physiological effects.
In terms of human evolutions, we originally could only see blue and yellow, but gradually we added red and green. This red/green colour perception evolved to enable us to discern fruits. Blue and yellow have hard wired emotional associations, but we had to learn our red and green emotional responses. We learn our responses to red and green by pleasure and pain associations, over our lifetime.
Oddly, red can make you feel calm and confident and there is data to support the idea. People watching sports people or teams wearing reds tend to rate their performance more highly than those wearing blue. If you digitally manipulate a film of the same competition, swapping those in red with those in blue, suddenly the other team seems to be performing better. This has a major implication for refereeing, for example, or when judging art competitions. We tend to favour the red team. We probably favour the red paintings, for the same reason.
Blue has another effect. It seems to make time pass more quickly. In some senses, it is more arousing. Colours affect your cortisol levels, which are stress response hormones. This, in turn, also alters your perception of the rate of time passing.
Try this exercise. Look at the image of the white dot between the red and green squares for one minute, ignoring the desert scenes below. After a minute of concentration on the white dot between the red and green squares, shift your gaze to the white dot placed between the two identical images of the desert scene.
If you are like most people, something amazing happens. You would have seen the colours on the two desert scenes shift, with the left half taking on a reddish cast and the right half taking on a greenish cast, as simulated in the picture below. I assure you, the pixel RGB values have not changed.
On the other side of the colour shift spectrum is the brain’s ability to change the colours we perceive so that they remain constant under changing light conditions. If you read a book, with white pages in artificial, indoor light, then walk outside, in pure physical terms the light is now bluer. However, your brain corrects immediately for this shift in ambient light and the page remains white, in your brain. This is what makes the colour of shadows so tricky to paint. Shadows actually have colour, but we have learned to see them as black. If we learn to observe the true colour of the shadows, we can make more convincing images, as painters.
It turns out that if you have a common object of a particular colour (say a banana) and a coloured square placed amongst many other coloured squares of different hues that is the exact same shade of yellow in daylight, then by changing the lighting conditions to be blue or red or green, the coloured square changes colour, in your mind, drastically, compared to the banana, which you continue to perceive as yellow (or more yellowish than the identical coloured square). Your perception of the yellow banana tends to remain the same, irrespective of the colours and wavelengths of the ambient light. We synthesise colours in our brains, stubbornly associating them with familiar objects, because that’s what we’ve learned.
What does this mean for representational painters, where there are strong learned associations between familiar objects and the colour they should be? What happens in non-daylight situations? Colour constancy should mean that large shifts in ambient light should result in little perceived shift in the colour of these familiar objects. It also tells me, for example, why Monet’s paintings of haystacks were such a novelty. Suddenly, the familiar object, the haystack, was being served up to us in a variety of colours. What do our brains, which know haystacks to be the yellowish colour of straw, make of a purple or pink haystack?
What about colour perception for abstract painters? Here, the objects depicted are not necessarily familiar, so we have no strong colour associations planted in our minds. Do we perceive different colour shifts in different ambient light? We must! In my own work, I combine abstract elements with representational forms, but in different colours. This must provide a feast of conflicts in the mind of the viewer. Sorry about that.
I discovered a similar colour constancy thing when I photographed my paintings under halogen light. In the room, under the halogen lights, the colours of the paintings seemed to me just like they were when I painted them (I usually paint under relatively low light conditions and with incandescent lighting). However, when I viewed the pictures in the computer, they were distinctly shifted toward yellow. The whites were especially yellow. Use of a white balancing effect in Paint.NET corrected the whites in the computer and restored the blues. The point was that during the photography, under what were yellowish lights, I had no idea the whites were no longer white and that the blues were subdued.
Colour perception turns out to be cultural, too. Language affects the colours you see and might be why different cultures associate different colours with the same emotions. In Poland, for example, I’m told people don’t associate blue with sadness or depression.
Babies between 0-3 months have underdeveloped colour vision. It has been discovered that the acquisition of language changes our colour perception. Language potentially structures how the brain structures the visual world, including colours. What does this imply for colour blindness in children? Is it a side effect of some issue involving learning language?
We are told that there are eleven colour categories in English. Pre and post language acquisition, we process these eleven categories differently. Colour is processed in the right half of the brain pre-language acquisition and in the left half, post-language acquisition. The number of words for colour categories you have in your culture is down to how much you need those colours. For example, there is no native Welsh word for pink or brown. Almost incredibly, this absence of a descriptive, linguistic category for a colour profoundly affects our sensitivity to these indescribable colours. We become relatively blind to them.
During research on this phenomenon, it has been discovered that some people, in some cultures, see little difference between subtle shades of green, but to others, the difference is stark. This has implications for landscape painting, where greens prevail. Some people don’t see the shades. Others see even subtle changes in green as shocking contrasts.
Colour contrasts involve similarity judgements and these judgements differ depending on whether you have the language to describe the different colours being compared. You actually don’t see or perceive them as different colours if you don’t have words to describe the different colours. You see them as the same. So while we might clearly see a difference between green and blue, in a culture where blue is not described as a separate colour category, there is no difference between green and blue. They can’t discern a contrast.
How we arrange colours together, in a pattern, is very interesting, too. People don’t arrange them at random, but in predictable ways. Our way of grouping colours is highly predictable. The clue to the pattern lays in nature. We make colour grouping structures similar to the groupings of colours we see in our environment every day. Where we see greens and reds in the flower garden, we make groupings of these colours spontaneously that are perfectly consistent with the colour schemes we see in our daily lives. What implications does this have for city dwellers, living under garish neon signs or in environments of endless grey concrete and dirty red bricks? How are colour groupings affected for people spending most of their lives indoors, under fluorescent light?
I think this profoundly affects which colours we think harmonise or go together. It is the artist that uses colour to surprise, against this backdrop of familiar groupings that produces the most memorable or disturbing works. In my work, I have often painted natural skin tones, but shifted the highlights from a conventional and expected warm, light orange shade to a vibrant, cold bright, light turquoise. The effect is startling.
Your emotional state also affects your perception of colour. How you feel affects how you see colour values. Experiments have been performed comparing colour perception between a group of people who were feeling powerful versus a group that were feeling powerless. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming terms, people anchoring their thoughts to when they felt they had a sense of control saw colour differently to those whose anchors were associated with hopelessness and victimhood. Powerful people spot colour changes more accurately and more perceptively than the powerless. Furthermore, women are more sensitive than men and strong women were even more sensitive than those who were not. Power causes you to see colour in the world more accurately.
It is for this reason that I think people should demand hope. A world that fills the mass media and our screens with doom and gloom is actually making the world seem less colourful in a potent and real sense. Painters need to be in positive mental states, when they paint. When you are feeling depressed and powerless, then the world really is seen as more grey!
The conclusion is clear. If you are a painter and a colourist, you need to think very carefully about your state of mind, before you choose your palette and before you create your colour contrasts. Whether you paint realistic scenes or abstract ones, the way you approach colour should be mindful of the research and the effect your colours will have on people that view your painting. The way people will perceive the colours in your painting can vary profoundly.