Color Studies – Part 4 Color Relationships

By Sheri Doty


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Color Studies – Color Applications and Definitions

Part 4 – Color Relationships 

(Click Images For Larger Views)

This section was taken from both Interaction of Color: by Josef Albers first copyright 1963 and The Art of Color  by Johannes Iitten, First Published in 1961. I’ve also include my own observations of figure-ground relationships.

Note: I added this section to my study of color because it has had a major impact on my ability as an artist to make believable color and value choices in my art. If you want to study color relationships in depth I suggest you study and do the exercises in the books by Josef Albers and Johannes Itten. 

Visual perception is a relative thing. Josef Albers, in his book Interaction of Color Revised Edition, said “In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.” Values are equally deceptive when one value figure is placed on different grounds. (“Value” refers to the use of light and dark tones.)

Figure-Ground Interactions and Deceptions 

The Deception of Figure-Ground relationships has various causes and if you understand those contributory relationships you will have ways to recognize those visual tricks played on the eye of the casual viewer and as an artist, make use of their interactions.

What is Figure-Ground? A “figure” is an object, shape or tone placed on a background or “ground”. Figure-Ground is the condition in which backgrounds, tones or hues change the visual impact of the figure resting on it. The same hue or value appears to be unlike itself depending upon the contrast of tone or hue of the background upon which it is placed. Conversely, two different tones or hues appear to be the same when placed on contrasting grounds. Each will have an impact on how believable your art will be perceived by the viewer.

Value Contrast and Figure-Ground 

Most people have difficulty perceiving “figure-ground” relationships. When the same medium toned figure is placed on varied light and dark backgrounds, it will be perceived to be as a different value. Example: When a medium gray is placed on a near black background, the mid-gray tone appears very light. When the same gray tone is placed on a near white background, it is perceived to be very dark. But when a mid gray tone is placed on a similar value background, the contrast is minimal. Note how the same mid-tone value patch on the ten step value scale looks different when placed on each background value step of contrasting values

Figure-Ground Confusion and the Logic of Light and Shadow 

When an artist wants to render the illusion of volume and mass on a two-dimensional surface, they use what is called “Light Logic “or the logic of showing a light side a dark side and cast shadows. When one light source shines on a sphere I say the dark side is “always” darker than the light side of an object and the light side is “always” lighter than the dark side. This sounds simplistic but it is the middle tones on both the light and dark sides of an object that confuse the artist’s eye in value relationships. The confusion between the light and dark values is caused by misreading figure-ground relationships. Values have a different appearance when placed on varied backgrounds. Establishing a definite light side and dark side makes round objects appear round and defines the form of an object accurately. Separate your dark tones from your light tones to avoid figure-ground confusion.

In this photograph I wanted to demonstrate Figure-Ground confusion as applied to Light Logic. I used one light source to show the light side, forming shadow and cast shadow of a white sphere in a white box. The darkest tone on the light side looks to be the same value as the lightest value tone on the light side. I have cut out value swatches from each area to show the true value of the tones showing figure-ground confusion.

Contrasting Grounds 

When four red shapes are placed on a white background, the red shapes are dominated by the white ground, but the contrasting properties between red tones is less noticeable because of the extreme contrast of the white background. When the same four red hues are placed on a red background the contrast of warm/cool properties and contrasting values become more apparent but the background contrast is subtle.

The reason Simultaneous Contrast effects are important to visual artists are explained by Johannes Itten.  

Simultaneous Contrast: “Simultaneous contrast results from the fact that for any given color the eye simultaneously requires the complementary color, and generates it spontaneously if it is not already present.” Johannes Itten, The Art of Color   . Why the eye requires a color to be balanced by its compliment has not been explained. Simultaneous contrast affects figure-ground interactions due to this phenomenon.

Simultaneous Effects  (Johannes Itten,The Art of Color  page 88) “It is important to know under what circumstance simultaneous these effects will occur and how they can be counteracted. There are many problems in color that preclude solutions using simultaneous contrast. Some years ago, the manager of a weaving mill called my attention, in desperation, to some hundreds of meters of costly tie silk that would not sell well because a black stripe on a red ground looked, not black, but green. This effect was so pronounced that the customers insisted that the yarn was green. If brownish black yarn had been used, the simultaneous effect would have been neutralized, and heavy losses avoided.”

Simultaneous Contrast Demonstrations 

After Image is an example of complementary contrast Reversal . My example of a simultaneous after image phenomenon is seen at the right.

Stare at the black dot within the orange circle and blue ring for a long period of time- then stare at the black dot on the blank white page. You will see the reversed after image of a blue circle and an orange ring.

The following are my solutions to just two assignments from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers

My solutions to making the same color look different and two different colors look the same are accomplished by the following conditions: 

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