Color Relationships 2, Fall 2016 week 4

The fourth session of the Color Relationships 2 class for Fall 2016 was held on Wednesday, September 21. We critiqued the homework (Volume Color), addressed common problems that students encountered, and discussed again the benefits of using volume color in artwork. The class was introduced to white light and shadows, and given a new homework assignment, Create the illusion of white light.

Homework assignment

Create an illusion of a white light on a set of varied hues and values, using opaque media or Adobe Illustrator. Several formats are suggested below. Start simple, and base your study on observation.

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Class recap – some key ideas

Critique – Volume Color

Class started with a critique of the homework, Volume Color. This assignment involved creating two final images, one that illustrated objects receding into a liquid; and one that illustrated objects receding into an atmosphere. Loosely translated, this meant that one image should show objects fading away into a dark background, and the other image should fade away into a light background.

In order to make volume color convincing, it has to be CONSISTENT. To create an effective solution, one should make arrays of the original color along with the atmosphere or liquid color as the other parent. As Karen wrote in the 2013 Color Relationships post: In volume color, whether it’s liquid or air, the “background” is key, because its color influences all objects in it. If that context is missing, the illusion falls apart. Use an array with the volume color and object color as the parents.

Dick noted that many of the assignments used other visual clues (such as overlapping, size changes, etc.) that implied a sense of space and depth, and said again that volume color will help immeasurably in completing that illusion. Atmospheric perspective provides a harmony and a cohesiveness which none of the other visual clues can provide. As Dick says, it all comes back to RELATIONSHIPS. “It’s so effective when everything relates … [you can just see it]. Even if the colors clash, as you move it into a volume [color], it will unite your work, as it would in nature.”

Dick’s main critique was that he may have given this class too much freedom with this assignment, and that in certain cases technical challenges or subject matter became the main concern rather than demonstrating understanding of the concepts. Having no restraints can be liberating, but it can also introduce too many considerations which distract from the main objective. Since part of Dick’s goal in every class is to make his students more independent, his advice was to “keep it simple” in order to make sure you understand the concepts before you move on to more complex work. Concentrate on stepping stones, not precious stones.

View all studies submitted online.

Films, veils, and volume color

Over the past few years, Dick has revised his teaching on films, veils, and volume color, based on observation. If you are familiar with his previous guidance, either as a student or from reading elsewhere on this website, it’s important to take note of this change. Like his mentor, Josef Albers, Dick not only believes, but exemplifies, that “Learning never ends!”

For many years, Dick taught that liquid behaved as a film, darkening objects placed in it. When considering a white or light-colored object, this made sense, and matched our observations. However, when we actually observe a liquid, such as the ocean, we see that both dark and light colors are gradually obscured, taking on the color of the water. As objects recede deeper into the liquid, the liquid color dominates and local color is lost. Dark objects do not become darker. The concept of transparent films, and their darkening behavior, is still important – shadows being the most notable example – it just doesn’t apply to volume color.

Likewise, for many years, Dick taught that “a veil will always lighten.” This is true in the case of many common veil phenomena, such as wedding veils, waterfall mist, and fog. But obviously, a black veil darkens. Smoke is sometimes dark. Veils are made of opaque particles, which absorb, reflect, and scatter light. Dick explored this phenomenon last week with the Illustrator simulation of veils of different colors and densities. A veil will lighten or darken an object depending on their relative values, and an object under the influence of a veil takes on the veil’s color.

Volume color behaves as a veil: objects immersed in it will lose their own color and take on the volume color, whether liquid or atmosphere. Arrays simulate this situation perfectly. If you make an array from the object’s color to the volume color, the steps in between represent the color as it would appear at different depths or distances in the liquid or atmosphere. As Dick said, “The array is the key,” “Array, array, array!” and “You have got to recognize that the array is your salvation.” Colors and values in a scene must be from the arrays, or they will be perceived as “freaks”, not belonging to the scene, and detracting from the credibility of the illusion you are trying to create.

White light demo

The rest of the class was spent discussing the next assignment, Create the illusion of a white spotlight. Dick demonstrated what a strong white light will do over a selection of colors, and the differences between a strong spotlight versus a weak one. Here are some of the highlights of that discussion (along with excerpts from previous class posts):

Dick gave a demo of white light shining on a white cube and an arrangement of colors. Shining the light from different directions allowed analysis of how we perceive the strength and direction of light – from the shadows it casts. The contrast between shaded and illuminated areas of a light color (like white or yellow in the photos) is greater than the contrast on a darker color like green, because light colors reflect more light, and dark colors absorb more light. Carefully observing this kind of phenomenon will help you identify and solve problems in your own or others’ work. (Color Relationships 2, 2015, week 4)

  • How do you depict a white spotlight? You show the SHADOWS, you have to darken everything around the spotlight; you cannot imply a white spotlight by tinting the colors! The darkness (or value) of the shadows will depend on how bright your light source is: if you have a bright light, you’ll have darker shadows (more contrast). If you have a soft light, you’ll have lighter shadows (less contrast).
  • Watch for your viewer’s preconceptions: we are used to reading light as “coming from above”, so the use of shadows will change our perception of what we are looking at. Dick used an example from his Marine Corps days: an incident where a fellow Marine was reading aerial photographs in order to bring the troops to a strategic location. The fellow decided on a mountaintop as the destination, but Dick disagreed with the assessment, and asked the Marine to turn the photographs 180˚ and read them again. Once the shadows were properly oriented, It turns out the mountaintop was actually a valley! While artists don’t often have the same pressure to correctly render a scene, it still behooves us to put the correct information in our work to convey an accurate message.
  • Ambient light will have an effect on light and shadows: “I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to ‘paint the shadows cool’, but why? Since we have a blue sky, ambient light will add a blue cast.”

Shadow colors are the complement of the light source, so for white light, the shadow is black. Outdoors, most areas are exposed to some ambient light, which tends to be blue because “we live in a blue dome,” as Monet observed. Thus, because of this ambient blue light, most outdoor shadows will be cool. Light reflected from neighboring surfaces also influences the local color of an object. (Color Relationships 2, 2015, week 4)

  • “Nature works in relationships – light does not play favorites, everything is in relation.” When we are trying to create harmonious images, we should strive to understand these natural rules or we will create works that are not ‘of this world’ (or ‘freaks of nature’, as Dick calls them).

Links to previous classes and videos

There are several posts on Dick’s website that deal with observations about white light and shadows. Check out these links for more information, including videos from previous class lectures, and also previous class posts found at the bottom of this page (under Same class, different year).

Advanced Drawing 2016, week 1:

Advanced Drawing 2016, week 2:

Class photos

Class materials

Download (PDF)

Download (PDF)


These videos were shown as part of the slideshow presentation. Some are short demonstrations and others are detailed tutorials. Take advantage of them to reinforce concepts and help with completing homework.

Mix any color

Primary colors of pigment and light, and their relationship

Let there be light

A 3D simulation of a white spotlight moving over a scene, demonstrating light and shadow and how colors are affected.

A spotlight?

Demonstrating the illusion of a spotlight using only opaque colors

A spotlight illusion in Illustrator

Showing how opaque shaded colors can create the illusion of a spotlight on a set of colors

Light and shadow define form

A demonstration of how light and shadow define form, and affect colors consistently

Plotting white light

A tutorial on plotting white light, its cast shadow, and reflected light in 3D in Adobe Illustrator.

White spotlight illusion

Dick Nelson demonstrates how to create the illusion of a white spotlight on a set of colors, in Adobe Illustrator.

Same class, different year

View the corresponding class post from 2015 or 2013.