Colour - Understanding vs. Perception

Developing superior colour sensitivity • by Michael Downs

Color Perception

Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch… these are the five basic senses that perceive external stimuli which in turn are interpreted by our brains. Each sense can be refined with training, practice, and experience.

Sommeliers train their palates for tasting the subtle flavors within a good wine; conductors train their ears for hearing the nuance of sounds within an orchestra; and hence, painters should train their eyes for seeing variation of colors within their subject matter.

Hardly any person would argue that to be an expert sommelier a key skill is superior flavor perception, or that to be an excellent conductor a key skill is superior sound perception. Since color is primarily how we describe any visual subject matter, it ought to follow that to be an exceptional painter a key skill would be superior color perception.

Color perception skills in painting evolved mainly during the Impressionism movement. Prior to this time in history, paintings were usually executed using a tonal/value approach, due in large part to the limited range of pigments available (mostly earth tones). With the onset of the industrial revolution, came two major advancements for painters:

  • The invention of new metal based intense pigments that enabled painters to actually make a realistic and complete color wheel.
  • The invention of paint tubes that made painting outdoors more practical.

In the late 1800’s, Monet took advantage of these modern conveniences, and ventured outside to paint. Over a twenty year period of plein air painting, he “discovered” (or really just saw), that changing light affected the colors of the objects he was observing. In 1890, his observations culminated in a thematic study – 25 works in total – of haystacks to demonstrate how the time of day, different seasons, and various weather conditions altered color. This was not an arbitrary or subjective study of color, but rather an objective study of how light conditions affect color. The industrial revolution gave painters the ability and Monet gave painters the awareness to go beyond value-based perception into the new realm of color-based perception.

Today, we have more modern pigments than Monet could have ever imagined, but even one hundred years later color is still being overlooked. I ask myself why this is the case because in all fairness color, NOT value, defines our visual world. Yet it seems that learning and developing color perception is being largely ignored in favor of value. The only answer I have for this incongruity is that color is much more perplexing than value to master. The following quote alludes to the fact that even Monet had to constantly challenge his brain to defy his own preconceived color notions, and to allow his observations of true color to create form.

“I wish I had been born blind and then could suddenly see. Then I would naturally just paint the colors, and not be distracted by the objects in front of me.” – Monet

While many artists have studied color extensively, there is still little understanding about color perception, despite the concept existing since Monet. The problem seems to be that most artists are taught color understanding and that is a very different thing from color perception. This very basic comparison expresses some differences between the two and will give you an idea of whether you use your understanding of color or perception of color when you paint.

Color Understanding

Knowledge & Recall

  • Blue and yellow make green.
  • Ultramarine is a warm blue while Cerulean is a cool blue.
  • Mixing colors across the color wheel results in “mud”.
  • Easy to learn (a memorization of facts, that can be presented in a book)
  • One time acquisition (once you learn that blue and yellow make green, you know it)
  • Very useful, but often limited (allows you to copy, paint by formula, or make subjective/expressive color choices)

Color Perception

Sensory Input & Evaluation

  • What are the qualities of the color I am looking at? (warm/cool, dull/intense, light/dark)
  • How does the color vary from one area of an object to another?
  • Is the relativity of the color correct within my painting?
  • Challenging to learn (a training of the eye to become more sensitive to color input and a training of the brain to properly interpret rather than insert previously acquired information, that can only be acquired through training, practice, and experience)
  • Ongoing process (once you begin, you will continuously be refining your perception skills)
  • Very useful, limitless (allows you to make objective color choices giving you complete freedom to paint any subject matter in any style desired)

Color can be mixing paint and learning the color wheel, or it can be so much more… it all begins with your eyes. 

Michael is well-known for his teaching style and teaches methods used by professional artists. He believes in showing students the foundations of both drawing and painting, so that students can take their skills and apply them to any style and medium of their choosing. In oils Michael encourages his students to work "directly" to take advantage of the properties of the paint. In watercolor, his philosophy is simplicity, keeping it fresh and luminous. In both mediums he emphasizes training the eye to see both shape and color, to quickly improve skill level.

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