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Color Principles For Artists: Color Relativity Part 1

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

Today's post is another installment in my series Color Principles For Artists, and we're going to be talking about a subject that often cause a lot of confusion- color relativity.

Horizontal photo with bars of color.

Basically, color relativity comes down to is this- whether a color can be considered warm or cool, dark or light, isn't determined solely by the color itself, but rather how it compares to the other colors around it.

The idea that color is dependent on the other colors around it can be a hard concept to grasp, but for the artist it's as important a principle as color value and temperature. When an artist has a solid understanding of color relativity, they begin to work with color more confidently.

To make things a little easier I've broken the information up into two parts. In this first part we'll start with examples that are gray and focus solely on how value is affected by color relativity. (If you're unfamiliar with the term value as it relates to color, read my post What Is Value.)

So lets look at some examples of what this all means.

Gray square showing how the gray can change based on the value of other grays.

In this example I have two large squares, one dark and one light. The small square in the middle is a medium value. When it's placed over the light square it's the darkest value, when it's placed over the dark gray, it's now a light value. This simple example shows that a color could be either a shadow or a highlight depending on what's around it.

Lets look at another example:

Gray squares showing how value can change the perception of other value.

If I were to ask which is lighter - the top or the bottom box, you'd probably say the bottom. That answer would be correct if I had asked which box seems lighter, in truth both boxes are the same color. Use your finger to block the highlights and shadows where the boxes meet in the middle and you'll see that the color is same. The boxes only appear to be different colors because of the shadows and highlights next to them. (Note: A small number of people will still see two different grays after blocking out the shadows and highlights, this is a phenomena that's related to another bit of color theory that will be discuss in a future post. For those of you in this small group- you'll have believe me when I say both grays are the same color- your brain is just playing a trick on you.)

Let's see one last example. Compare the light gray boxes in the center, do they look the same or different?

Gray square showing color temperature.

The center squares in these two boxes might look the same, but the colors are actually different. Here they are side by side for direct comparison. The color on the left was in the light box, the color on the right in the dark. The two colors appear to be the same because dark values will generally make lighter values seem even lighter.

Gray Squares.

Knowledge and understanding of color relativity is beneficial to an artist in a few ways:

  • Awareness about how one color can be used as both a highlight and a shadow (like in example one) can allow the same color to be used in different areas. Using the same color in more than one area can be a nice way of creating harmony and unity in a piece.

  • Realizing that pure white doesn't have to be used for highlights, snow, clouds, and moving water (i.e. crashing waves and waterfalls). Often times when pure white is used it will seem too bright and flat. Colors that are a few shades darker will still be perceived by the viewer as white, but will into the environment better. This is especially true when a light value is near darker values (a concept illustrated in example 3).

  • When working on colored or toned substrates, an understanding of color relativity will make it easier to know how surface colors will be influenced by the substrate.

  • Generally having a good understanding of how color is influenced by the other colors around it (as shown in example 2 and 3) will help an artist work with color more naturally and intuitively.

In part 2 I'll show some multi-color examples and explain how color relativity affects more than just value. Read Part 2.

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