How often do you think about color relationships? Even though we painters deal with them every time we apply paint, we may not consciously think about how the colors will relate to each other while painting. Why are color relationships important? Have you ever mixed a perfect color, then gone to apply it only to discover that it didn’t work?
For me, even after 25+ years of painting, this frustration of believing I have mixed the correct color and it not working, still happens. This is because colors are volatile — they are shifty. In other words, a swatch of color is immediately impacted by the color surrounding it. We pick up a mixture from a palette that is essentially isolated. This mix is not surrounded by the same colors as on our painting. However, we believe it will look great on our painting. Soon we discover that is either looks good or it doesn’t.
To demonstrate how colors are impacted, I have painted a gradated value scale of slightly de-saturated blues and left two clean unpainted canvas strips in the middle. Notice the contrast difference from top to bottom between the unpainted and the painted areas. In this example, the value changes of the blue impact the color of the unpainted strips. Do you see how the white of the canvas seems brighter and lighter at the top, and then darker and duller at the bottom? (Click any of the images for a larger view.)
In the next example, I digitally added two different oranges – bright and dull – for comparison. Even though these oranges are not painted in, you can still see the variation of color relationships between the color complements of orange and blue. In the left orange strip, notice how much brighter it is at the top versus at the bottom.
And here the strips are different blues. Again, observe how the intensity of the color changes based upon the color and value surrounding it. By the way, this color relationships phenomenon is called simultaneous contrast. I discussed it more thoroughly with additional examples in a previous post “What Key Color Principle is Often Neglected?” We feel like we are being tricked by this optical phenomenon.
So how does this impact your painting strategy? In the thundercloud painting below, I had to know which gray to use to create the form of the clouds. Often I was correct with the mixture I chose, but not always. It took a little trial and error. By the way, I mixed up five blue grays representing different values before starting to paint the cloud. I didn’t mix as I went a long with the painting.
Below is the sky before I started to paint the clouds. I knew this would be an interesting cloud painting exercise because of the value changes in the sky.
When was the last time you experienced how mercurial color relationships can be? It actually happens every time you paint. The more you practice and notice these relationships, the easier it will be to achieve your painting objectives.
Another question: When have you been merrily painting and you take the same mixture, put it on another part of the painting and it doesn’t work? Know that you are not crazy. Color relationships are at play and they are a vital part of the painting process. They are mercurial because of the influence they have on one another.
Play around with them. Perhaps create an exercise for yourself to better understand simultaneous contrast and then share it with us.
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Colorfully and gratefully yours,
PS Any color is only as good as the color next to it.