Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Color Theory in Practice

In my last blog, I addressed the theoretical aspects of the color theory.  In this installment, I shall turn my attention to the practice and the fun part - the visual perception and illusions as well as aesthetics induced by color.  I will use some illustrations with my work from projects in the class.  If you are familiar with visual arts, you may note the principles have been used extensively by artists for a long time.  If you aren’t, you will see that they are present everywhere from fashions and advertisements to interior design and product packaging.  And you may then realize that you have been conditioned sublimely already.  Here is a quick test: can you name “the little blue pill”.

The focus and interests of artists are obviously different from the scientists or technologists.  Scientists seek to understand, explain, and to predict the occurrence of a phenomenon.  Technologists seek to create methods and tools that allow people to perform tasks which are otherwise difficult or laborious.  Artists on the other hand are interested in expressing themselves and to communicate through human sensory systems using available media and tools.   As such, it is the totality of the work when one composes or puts together component parts (in our case, the colors) that interact with each other and with the viewers.  Here are some cases in point about the Interactions of colors: 

Seeing afterimages is one experience that we all have had regularly but may not be aware of it.   It is an optical illusion whereby an image continues to appear in our “vision” after we have stopped looking at the object.   It is now known that our eyes automatically adapt to exposure of light to protect them.  For instance, if you stare at a bright red object for a while, your eyes will tune out the signals at the red wavelength.  As a result, one sees afterimage of the object in green which is the complementary color of red (at the opposite end of the color wheel).  Try it, you can easily verify the effect by staring at a bright colored object for a short while and then shut your eyes.

A more intricate effect is the so-called simultaneous contrast that can produce interesting deceptions to our vision.  The figure on the left below is my attempt of making the center squares (which are of the same color) appear to be two different colors utilizing the contrast with their backgrounds.   The figure on the right below is my attempt of making the center squares (of two distinct colors in this case, as shown by the two rectangles at the bottom) appear to be the same color.  Both illustrate the notion of simultaneous contrast.


Yet another famous example is called The Bezold Effect, named after the rug designer Wilhelm von Bezold.   He discovered that he could change the appearance of a rug design by simply changing one of the main colors in that design or by adding one other color.  My two designs below show his idea.  They share an identical pattern in three colors of which two are the same in both designs.  Do you see them as two distinct patterns?


Switching gears, more often than not, artists are constrained to use a two-dimensional surface to convey a 3-D experience.  A common way of creating the perception of space and depth is to make use of perspectives developed from our visual experiences in life.  For instance, we are accustomed to linear perspective whereby objects appear smaller when they are further away from us.  We are also used to the relation of overlapping objects when the nearer objects obscure the viewing of objects further back.

Artists and designers have created many interesting optical illusions by intentionally giving conflicting perspectives as shown in, for example, the famous “never ending staircase” of the lithographic print Ascending and Descending by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher.  Note no color was needed in such illusions. 

Color no doubtedly offers additional dimensions and opportunities as exemplified in realism paintings.  For example, we are all familiar with the vanishing point and the atmosphere or aerial perspective where the contrast in color and value are much weaker for objects at distance which appear to be more bluish.  Such an effect could be explained with the scattering and obscuring effects by particles in air.   Similarly, we often perceive objects in warmer colors (red, orange, yellow) appear to be closer to us than objects in cooler colors (green, blue).  It is related to the chromatic aberration as our physicist friends would say.

At end of the day though, each artist need to choose a particular color pallet to express certain mood and atheistic feels.  Some have used a single color family to achieve impressive results.  One possibility is monochromatic color scheme - nuances and contrast can be created by varying the value of a single color when mixing it with different amount of white or black.  The painting below on the left is one example by Pablo Picasso in his Blue Period (now you know why the name).  Another possibility is to use different values of gray mixed with a chosen color as the painting below on the right illustrates.  It is done by the famous early 20th century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi who often paints in chromatic grays. 

There are of course numerous color schemes that have been documented in color theory and believed to achieve certain style and feel, be it harmony or discord.  Examples include triadic (three colors in 120 degree apart on color wheel such as yellow, blue, red used in Burger King logo) and analogous (three or more colors close to each other on color wheel such as red/orange/yellow used in A&P supermarket logo).  The grand finale of this semester long class I am taking is to create an art or design work one that uses the principles learned from the class.  My choice is create an image of a personal (Chinese) chop/seal. 

When I was growing up in Taiwan, I always dreamed of owning a personal chop one day with a design and material of my choice.  Such a feeling is not uncommon among Chinese youths since personal chop has been used in China for thousands of years like a public notary seal used in U.S.  It is required in business and symbolizes the acceptance of one’s identity by the society as a legal entity.  Chop thus has been a subject of Chinese artists and calligraphers through history and my choice for my final project.

The resulting work is shown at the right.  My design is based on the traditional red inked square chop with my three-character Chinese name that reads from top-down and right to left.  The last character means “seal”.   The script I have chosen is the Small Seal 小篆 the first unified script over 2200 years ago under the First Emperor of China.  The distinct feature of my design is a self-portrait in the background which is not present in traditional chops.

The color scheme used in this design is double complementary, in particular, the tetrads – red/green and yellow-orange/blue-purple which as 90 degrees apart on the color wheel.  It is completed with monochromatic green and chromatic gray with green that are applied to the self-portrait such that it recedes into the background to provide spatial perspective.  

Now I have shown you my chop.  You can figure out my Chinese name, can’t you?  Talk to you soon!

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