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Color Principles For Artists: Color Relativity Part 2

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

This is the second installment in my two-part post on Color Relativity. In Part 1 we focused on how color relativity influences value, in this post we're going to talk about how color temperature and saturation (how intense or "bright" a color is) are affected. We're also going to discuss how color relativity influences your working environment, including tips for working in studio and outdoors. If you're not sure what the term color temperature means you can read about it in one of my other Color Principles for Artists posts- here.

A horizontal photo of colored bars.

Below I've made two large boxes, one light blue and one dark blue, with three small gray boxes. Just like in part one where we discussed value- the small gray box becomes the dark value when paired with the light blue, and the light value when it's on the dark blue- but take a look and you may notice something else.

light blue square on the left, dark blue square on the right, three light gray squares on the middle,

When paired with the dark blue, the gray box on the right looks like it's a different color from the other gray boxes (some people may even see three different color grays, it depends on individual color perception, but we're only going to discuss the difference in the gray on the dark blue square because it's the easiest to see). Simply putting the gray box on the dark blue makes it look warmer than the other two grays. Regardless of whether you perceive two or three different grays, I assure you all three are exactly the same color, they only look different because of how they're perceived in combination with the blues. This particular element of color relativity is also known as simultaneous contrast.

When you start to apply this concept to multiple colors you can really see how a color changes depending on what is around it- a color's perceived temperature, saturation (how intense or "bright" it is) and value can all vary.

In the example below and on the left, the blue is the same on both the yellow and purple rectangles, but it looks brighter, lighter, and warmer when it's with the purple. In the right-hand example, the green rectangles are the same, but when the green is placed on the orange it looks duller, darker, and cooler than when it's on the blue stripes.

Mutlicolor squares.

Now let's see how one color looks against a variety of partners. The small green squares are all the same color, but the green seems to change in value, temperature and saturation depending on what it's paired with. Take a look at each pairing and evaluate how the green has changed.

Multicolor squares showing how gray changes based on it's pairing.

In general, green becomes especially intense when paired with red because they are complimentary colors (opposite from each other on the color wheel) but as you can see by the two different reds- just how intense depends on the value and intensity of the red itself. The green on the dark red looks cooler and less-saturated than it does on the pink/light red. It's also important to point out that the green influences the color it's on top of too- if you look at the pink/ light-red while blocking out the green, you'll see that when the green is gone the color becomes less intense and is likely perceived as more of a light red than pink. When the green and red are seen together, the green makes the red seem warmer and more pink. (Note: If you don't see a difference, that's due to a phenomena called color permanence, which we'll discuss in a future post.)

Interestingly, when the color combinations intensify the green (which happens with the blue and purple) or when complementary color pairings are used (dark red and light red) you also get the illusion of a halo or outline around the green square. This doesn't happen on the gray square, although the green looks intense here too, because the gray and green are of similar value. Plus the gray is cool and neutral enough that it doesn't vibrate off the green the way some of the other colors do.

Although the dependency of these colors on one another is the essence of color relativity, this concept goes beyond mere color pairings- color is also affect by the lighting conditions it's viewed under. That's why as an artist it's important to not only use your knowledge of color relativity to help you work with color more effectively (as discussed in part 1) it's also an important factor to consider when it comes to your working environment.

In The Studio:

  • Keep the light as consistent as possible- lighting conditions that change drastically throughout the day can be problematic.

  • Use artificial lighting that's natural- not too warm or too cool. (Around 5,000 Kelvin is considered to be the temperature of natural light.)

  • Try not to over or under light your work space.

When Working Plein Air:

  • Don't work in direct sunlight- the bright light will skew your color perception and the painting won't look right when you get it indoors.

  • Make sure your palette and work surface are under the same lighting conditions (e.g. don't have your work surface in bright light and your palette in shade).

  • Wear neutral colors while working- the light can reflect the color of your clothes onto your work surface. If you're not wearing something neutral in color the reflection can alter your color perception.

I hope these two posts have brought some clarity to complex subject of color relativity and help you gain more confidence and control over working with color!

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