Sunday, April 6, 2008

Color Obtains in the Light

Some time ago, I promised that I’d share some of the tips I learned from the illustrator Tom Lovell. One of his maxims was: “Color obtains in the light.”

“Obtains” in its old-fashioned sense means “to prevail, or to gather in strength.” Another way to put it is: “Color increases in saturation in the light relative to the shadow.”

In the Vermeer painting of the milkmaid, the colors of the yellow bodice, blue apron, and orange pitcher are all relatively more saturated in the light than in the shadow. This happens because the color receptors of our eyes respond better in relatively higher light levels.

I was chanting the mantra “COLOR OBTAINS IN THE LIGHT” (much to the befuddlement of passersby) while I was working on this plein air sketch of a sign. Where the light struck the top, I observed that the red was truly much more vibrant.

Like all hard-and-fast rules, this one has a couple of exceptions. When a form of a given color is in shadow, sometimes the shadow is filled with reflected light of a similar hue.

For example, the shadow side of this ochre-colored building in Toledo, Spain is drenched in light reflected from an orange-colored building across the street, making it more saturated than the same color in the full sunlight.

Another exception is that the glare of the sunlight can be so bright that it actually overloads the color receptors of the eyes, draining the chroma from the lights, at least temporarily until the eyes adjust. This often happens in contre-jour light situations.

Addendum: April 7
I contacted Dr. Jack Werner of the Werner Lab of Vision Science, Department of Ophthamology & Vision Science, University of California, Davis, and asked him to clarify these points from a modern scientific perspective. He kindly responded:

The change in response of the photoreceptors increases with intensity and then simply levels off. I think the saturation changes that you observe in illuminated spots vs. in shadow are rather complex. It is possible that the lightness in one patch induces darkness in the other patch and vice versa. As a result, your observation depends upon both the direct effects of light and the indirect effects due to lateral interactions in the visual pathways.
In other words, if I dare paraphrase into my own words, we can't evaluate the colors in isolation if they're appearing in a complex scene, because we perceive colors in relation to each other, and the perception of adjacent colors in the light and shade have complex series of effects on each other.

Thank you, Dr. Werner.


Anonymous said...

I'd love to get your selling on line tips. Judy

Anonymous said...

I wish you could give some help with skies--the sky in the chop suey sign made me think of this. Judy

Erik Bongers said...

Dear Mr. Gurney,

On behalf of the Gurney Journey Blog Readers Community (Gujo Bloreco) I first want to express how much we appreciate you sharing with us your seemingly unlimited knowledge of, and fine taste in art matters.
When it comes to chanting Art Matras, and in light of the multimedia possibilities of the internet, we would like you to reconsider as we fear that you might be...sharing too much with us.

Hoping you understand our concern that you might be exposing yourself in a too...vulnerable way,
I greet you,

E. Bongers, spokesman of Gujo Bloreco.

p.s. : may I personally add how much I learned again from yet another great post. Especially the two exceptions given are now stored in my mental toolbox.

James Gurney said...

Mr. Bongers, it wasn't so much the chanted mantras as it was the shaved head, orange robes, and incense burning from atop the easel that befuddled the people on the sidewalk. Tell my loyal Blorecos not to worry; I've put all that in my past and now I just mutter intelligibly.

Judy, there's a lot to say about skies, and I'll try figure out how to chop the subject into bite-size bits for future posts.

craigstephens said...

A very succinct and useful explanation of a somewhat difficult to decipher maxim. Now that I know what Lovell means by "obtains" I find myself mentally repeating “Color obtains in the light.” It sounds a lot better than "Color is more colorful when it's light enough to see". Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your continued insightful posts on aspects of painting that are often overlooked.

This one brings to light (if you'll excuse the expression) the challenge of dealing with the limitations of paint itself, in that increasing the value of a color by adding white decreases the chroma (as you pointed out in your post on Rain and Neon), and artists have to adjust the relationship of colors to try to to give the impression of brightly lit, highly saturated colors.

Dan Gurney said...

Artists can't help getting enlightened. Goes with the territory.

Arco Scheepen said...


not directly a reaction to this post, but what a great find this blog is.

Anonymous said...

Found your very generous blog on Greywarenart,and the info you provide here is just so wonderful.
The explanations of color and light relationships is essential and reading this again keeps it in the proper place of importance.
Thank you for lending your knowledge.

Paul Foxton said...

Hi James,

I find what you say about not being able to evaluate colours in isolation very interesting - not least because I'm currently working with a methodology that does just that.

Do you think it's possible that the 'lateral interactions in the visual pathways' which Dr. Werner mentions can be recreated by recreating the colours which give rise to them - by matching the colors in isolation? Or would you say that the more limited dynamic range of paint in comparison to nature, particularly in outdoor scenes, would preclude that possibility? That in that case you need to paint the 'effect' since the colours that give rise to it can't be matched?

James Gurney said...

Paul, that is a really exciting and important question that you're asking, and I believe the answer is a resounding yes. You can match colors in the scene exactly, note for note. There are devices on the market for matching color swatches to spots in the scene by means of a little hand-held viewer. These are usually used by still life painters.

Matte painters also used to paint scene extension on glass outdoors that perfectly matched (from the camera's POV) the colors and values of a scene.

Of course this only works as long as there are not elements in the scene that go beyond the range of the pigments, like bright sun highlights, etc.