Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Seeing Colors

I was recently listening to a podcast of a great interview.  The podcast is the Savvy Painter; the interviewer is Antrese Wood, and the interviewee was Frank Lombardo.  Frank is an outstanding artist who lives and works right here in my county (see his work on his web site), so it was cool to hear him on a national podcast.  Among the interesting things that came out in the interview is that he's somewhat colorblind.  Yes, you read that right: a fantastic artist is color-challenged.  That hits home with me because I am, too.  I'm what they call a "mild deutan", which is a type of red-green color blindness that makes it difficult to tell some colors apart.  This is particularly true when they're the same light/dark value.  Put a yellow and green, or blue and purple, of the same value next to each other, and my eyes won't see much (any) difference.  Change the value of one or the other slightly, though, and I see them clearly.  Not only that, but I can mix up paint to match the colors.

After hearing Frank talk about his color blindness (which is evidently much worse than mine), I've been thinking about how we see colors.  Frank noted that color vision comes from the cones in the eyes.  Most people have three sets, generally called the red, blue, and green cones.  A very few women have four sets: red, blue, green, and yellow.  Their color vision is really good.  But other animals have even more.  A mantis shrimp, for example, has 16 types of receptors and can see visible, UV, and polarized light (wow).

Having the physical ability to see colors, though, and actually seeing them, are two different things.  I've learned over the years that the more I paint, and have to see and match colors, the more colors I see.  Sometimes I'll see a range of colors in something that, years ago, I would've just passed by.  It's the same as any other physical ability: if you don't exercise it, it won't work for you.

So the other day, I was walking my dogs.  The sky was perfectly clear and the snow was on the ground reflecting the colors around it.

This is the scene that first caught my eye.  There was a brilliant blue sky, a seemingly equally brilliant blue reflection in the show, with bright highlights from the late afternoon sun.  But look at the colors a bit more closely.  Yes, the sky is brilliant, a cobalt blue higher up (maybe with a trace of red?), getting lighter and slightly more cerulean blue toward the treeline.  The reflection on the snow, though, is not as saturated as the sky.  It can't be: the sky is pure light, while the snow is a reflection, meaning that some light is lost in the process.  So the blue on the snow is a bit grayer and, to my (color-blind?) eyes, a touch redder, too.  And the highlights on the snow?  They're not white, they're actually very light yellow-orange, which is the color of the light coming directly from the sun. So if you want an extreme example of what can happen with a warm/cool color shift, here you are!

Once I saw that, I started looking around more to see what other colors jumped out at me.  Here's a shadow on the side of the hill:

I think you can see the orange light more clearly here.  Look at the shadow, though: how strong is that blue, and what color is it?  Okay, I'll help: here's a blown-up section of that shadow:

Pretty dark, darker than I would have thought.  And here's a clip of the sky that was directly above this blue shadow:

As you can see, the sky is a much clearer blue because it's pure light.  To paint the sky, I'd use cobalt blue.  To get the reflection, I'd use cobalt blue plus a warmer earth tone, maybe a touch of burnt umber or burnt Sienna.  

And then, finally, here is the bank above the shadow:

This was just beautiful to me: the yellow-orange light, the blue shadows, the bright blue sky, and I'm even seeing some reds along the top of the ridge line.

Cool stuff, isn't it?  The more you use your eyes, the more things you learn to see.  And the more I can see, the more pleasure I have in just looking at the world.

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