Color Studies – Part 3 The Influences of the Environment on Color

By Sheri Doty

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Color Studies – Color Applications and Definitions

Part 3 – The Influences of the Environment on Color 

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Terms and descriptions used to explain how the environment influences color 

Optical Color 

Optical Color refers to how color is influenced by the environment. Optical color changes are influenced by a range of variables including atmospheric conditions, reflective characteristics and lighting affects each of which change the visual impact of the “local color” of objects.

Aerial or Atmospheric Perspective and Intuitive Space 

This method of creating space is using illusion to create depth. Intuitive space is sensed or ”felt” on a two dimensional plane. Intuitive methods of space control include overlapping, transparency, and other applications of spacial proportion.

Atmospheric Conditions: Such as the density of humidity, dust or fine particulates floating in the atmosphere and pollution affect the rate of texture, tonal, color and fading and diminishing detail.

The artist can use environmental influences to create the illusion of deep or infinite space. The term Aerial Perspective was first attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. He determined how a landscape seemed to change through atmospheric influences. Atmospheric perspective is the method of creating the illusion of depth, or recession, in a painting or drawing by modulating color, value contrast and textual effects to simulate changes effected by the atmosphere. Although the use of aerial perspective has been known since antiquity da Vinci named this phenomenon Aerial perspective.

The artist can enhance the illusion of deep or infinite space by using four contrasts: 

  1. Intensity Contrast
  2. Value Contrast
  3. Textural Contrast
  4. Diminution or Size Contrast 

color theory environment

intensity contrastIntensity Contrast: Intense colors are seen in the objects closest to the viewer. Dull or low intensity colors are viewed in the distance. Because colors are absorbed by the atmosphere, color seems to dim in contrast and intensity as they fade into the distance. As an example, I might paint a red mailbox that is three feet from me using vibrant fiery reds. That same red mailbox might be painted rusty red tones in the middle ground. When viewed from a distance, the red mailbox may be painted with a dull warm tone. Colors seem to fade in this progression. Reds and yellows disappear first, and other colors seem to fade away leaving a light blue in the distance. This is the usual progression unless the sun is near the “earth’s” horizon at dawn or sunset, when the landscape is flooded with scarlet and gold.

Value Contrast: Extreme value contrast is seen in the objects closest to the viewer. Values are absorbed by the atmosphere causing light and dark tones to dim in contrast and, and fade into the distance.

Textural Contrast or Sharp and Diminishing Detail: The human eye cannot see everything with equal clarity. Close Objects appear sharp and clear in detail, while those objects seen at a great distance appear blurred and lacking definition. The closer you are to an object, details are clear to see. The farther you move away, objects and details are fuzzier and less distinct. From a distance you see less texture but more of a pattern or a simple tone. No matter how complicated the details of an object, it will become less noticeable as it recedes into the distance.

desert flowerClose up – The details of vegetation such as leaves and flowers in foliage are clear to see. Rendering the details of architecture such as windows, doors and bricks create a building’s character.

Middle distance – As you move farther away, the tactile quality of foliage details become a pattern of textures, scribbled lines and tones. Atmospheric perspective effects might cause buildings, concrete and brick surfaces to gradually disappear to become an undefined visual texture.

Far distance – The distant background becomes a textural pattern. The awareness of individual characteristics shifts to group awareness. Instead of making textural marks smaller, the artist begins to deal with mass and the suggestion of texture

Diminution or Size Contrast and Overlapping Figures: Same sized objects appear smaller or seem to reduce in size as they recede into the distance. Overlapping Figures also gives a sense of depth.

size contrast

overlapping figures

Optical Color Mixing and Light Logic 

warm light sourceA light source has warm or cool properties. 

Light Source and Cast Shadows 

  • It has been documented that a warm toned light source casts a cool shadow, and a cool light source casts a warm shadow.
  • As I was demonstrating this phenomenon to my students, we observed that the effect is enhanced when both light sources are present. The example on the right shows what we observed.
  • The cool cast shadow came from a simple desk lamp. The light source provided a warm yellowish light which cast a cool – almost blue-violet cast shadow.
  •  The warm yellowish-orange cast shadow was caused by a cool light source – daylight coming from a north window in our classroom.

light source cast shadows

Colored Light Sources and Complimentary Cast Shadows. 

While studying the book The Art of Color by Colorist Johannes Itten I was intrigued by his observation that a colored light source casts its opposite or complimentary color shadow. He describes an occasion when he was walking in a city at night after a snow storm. Neon lights were lighting the city street. As he was walking he looked down and observed colorful cast shadows at his feet. He discovered the colorful city light lights were casting complimentary cast shadows.

I experimented with Itten’s observations and I came up with these examples:

Colored Light Sources and the Optical Mixing of Color 

When I shined colored lights on varied objects their apparent colors were changed by an optical mixing of colored lights. The results were as follows: A blue light shining on a yellow cube appears green. The same blue light shined on a white sphere looks blue. Each of the following examples shows variations of this phenomenon.

optical light mixing

reflected light mixing

Reflected Light and the Optical Mixing of Color 

An object’s “Local Color” is changed by the reflection of colored objects nearby and the colors within the environment. All my examples are placed in a white environment and illuminated by an artificial daylight light source. As an example of no color reflections I show a white sphere, in a white environment. The other examples show how colors reflect onto white or colored objects. In my egg example, the white walls of the box also reflect the colored papers placed around the egg. When one object is near other object, the reflected colors may blend making a new color mix. Please note: colors can only be reflected onto form shadows and cast shadows. When a light shines directly onto an object there is no color reflection, the light shows the local or apparent color of the object. It is on the shadow side where light causes colors to be reflected back on an object changing the local color of an object making an optical color mixture.

colored papers cube

Notice how the light shines on the colored papers and yellow cube, then bounces back onto the shadow side of the white sphere.

reflected color objects


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