Color Relationships 2, Fall 2016 week 5

The fifth session of the Color Relationships 2 class for Fall 2016 was held on Wednesday, September 28. We critiqued the homework (White light and shadow), which is always a trickier assignment than it initially seems. The class was introduced to the bizarre phenomenon of colored light and shadows, which often defies what your mind tells you to be true! Seeing it happen in real time is key to this lesson, and Dick provided a great demonstration to prove the effects. Please see the full post for photos, class materials, and this week’s new homework assignment, Colored light and shadow.

Homework assignment

The homework is at the very bottom of this PDF. Re-create your white light composition in colored light, or create a new study of colored light and shade.

Download (PDF)

Class recap – some key ideas

Critique – Illusion of White Light

The homework showed a variety of studies seeking to convey an impression of a white spotlight. One of the keys to a convincing illusion was to show multiple colors and shapes both in the light and in the shade; another key element was the overall Gestalt. As Dick loves to say, “Everything comes back to RELATIONSHIPS.”

Dick’s main comments on the homework:

  • Gestalt plays a large part in conveying your intentions correctly – the audience can’t understand your message if the Gestalt is not clear. The most common problem was a formal or symmetrical composition. To “sell” the viewer on your illusion, the arrangement should be casual, askew, jaunty. Informal positioning, overlaps and angles will be more convincing, because it’s rare for objects to be perfectly centered or aligned in the real world.

We are making visual statements, and we want the viewer to read it correctly … the viewer has to see it immediately – you don’t want to have to write it out.

  • Make sure the connection between what is in the light, and what is in the shade, is consistent and uniform; remember, light will treat everything in its path EQUALLY.

This is what’s so important about light and shadow: it unifies the painting.

When you start thinking [as you’re painting], that ‘This is separate from this, and this is separate from this’, you’re not thinking like nature anymore.

View all studies submitted online

Colored light demo and slide show

Satisfied that the class understood the principles of white light and shadow, Dick moved on the next topic: colored light and shadows. This interesting phenomenon has been observed for many centuries (the first methodical account on the color of shadows was written in 1672, by Otto von Guericke), yet it is still one that defies our rational expectations. Shadows are always the complement of the light source: if you shine a red light on an object, its shadow will be green. Shine a green light on it, and the shadow is red. Weird, but true!

The best example of colored light and shadow seen in nature is viewed at sunrise or sunset, when the light is very orange or amber-colored. This time of day is a favorite with photographers and painters, for it infuses skin tones with a beautiful rosy glow, and warms up all the colors in a scene. However, a colored light source will affect various colors in different ways, either enhancing its dominant parent color (thus becoming more saturated), or working against its dominant parent color (and thus toning it towards a neutral gray). As Karen wrote in the 2013 Color Relationships post: “Colors could be either enhanced or dulled by the light and by the shadow. A warm-colored light (yellow or pink) enhanced colors containing yellow or magenta, and dulled cooler colors, those containing cyan. The cool blue or green shadow, respectively, of those warm lights, enhanced cool colors and dulled warm ones.”

Noticing the correct color of the shadows is imperative for this assignment, as it is the hue of the shadows which tells the viewer what color the light source is. We cannot identify the color of the light source by the highlights alone, since as the light falls across all objects of varying colors, it will modify these colors equally and make it difficult to distinguish the original hue separately from the colored influence (ex: a purple hue will not change to orange under an amber light, it will still appear purple to our eyes). This is described by the term ‘color constancy‘, which loosely means you can see the same colors in context to each other, no matter what color light is shining on them.

We don’t always perceive these colors accurately, however, due to an effect called “color constancy.” If we “know” from past experience that objects have a certain color – a red apple, a white house – we will tend to interpret them as that color, even when the color is strongly modified by colored light or shade. But if we paint them as the color we “know” they will look wrong, as seen in some local paintings depicting white surf at sunset. This is the idea of “local color.” Local color exists only in our minds. Color is never absolute; it is always relative to the lighting conditions and surrounding colors. Colors at sunset are different than “in the light of day,” which is why it evokes such a different mood. If you understand these concepts, you are more likely to notice these phenomena, and perceive them more accurately.  – Karen, Color Relationships 2, 2015

Dick listed the three things to ask when painting shadows:

  1. What is the color of the light? (think in terms of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow)
  2. What is its complement?
  3. Is there any ambient or reflected light? How will that affect the shadows?

And again, why teach us about colored lights and shadows? Because it unifies and creates RELATIONSHIP in a piece: “That’s why I’m teaching film and light: it unites, it brings things together.” Just look to the many examples of Baroque paintings (especially Caravaggio and Rembrandt) to see what using a colored light source will do for your work.

Class photos

Class materials


These videos were part of the slide presentation.

Colored spotlight

Analyzing Kit Gentry’s upcountry sunset photo

Color constancy

Watercolor painting strategy for colored light

3D Illusion of colored light in Illustrator

Same class, different year

View the corresponding class post from 2015 or 2013.