Color is Relative

One of the many areas we covered in design school was color. We hit the ground running with a foundation year subject called Color Concept, where we not only studied color, but we learned how to move it around a composition, how to manipulate it and use it to bring a viewer’s eye around to focal points within the frame of reference—the boundaries of the composition—how to modulate it.

This was a big step for each of us. And in learning about any color, we found that one of its attributes is that it’s relative to other colors around it, meaning that its appearance can change. And that was something you could control only by altering those other colors.

The human eye adjusts for color comparisons. Here I’m talking about color’s main attributes: color has both value (lightness or darkness) and chroma (saturation).

The human eye can see color relativity only by comparison. For example, putting a gray square on a white background, then the same on a black background, you see just how the gray tends to change. It appears dark against that white background, but much lighter against the black. Our eyes adjust for that comparison automatically.

Our eyes are exactly like cameras. We squint in bright light conditions, and our pupils contract in size, letting in a small amount of light on the retina. Conversely, our pupils open up wider in dim light and thereby allow additional light to reach the retina so we can see greater detail. That’s just how a camera’s aperture works—if you use shutter priority for the camera’s basic shooting preference.

Color also changes with environment. Say you’re in Sherwin-Williams looking for a color to paint your bedroom. You see a soft blue tone that might match your bedspread and you pick out a few chips that’ll come close. So you head home, and when you arrive and put those chips on the wall, you discover that the color has changed. Either it’s too light or too dark, or even that it’s too drab. What changed?

The environment in your home is not at all the same as in that paint store. The lighting is not the same. And light has a tremendous amount of influence over color. As photographers know, fluorescent light, incandescent light, and daylight all have different wavelengths, tricking your eyes from seeing the true color of anything.

A color’s chroma works in a different way with regard to relativity. The chroma changes by way of the color’s placement among other colors. As an exercise, we’ll compare a color above to see how it can change before your eyes.

I’m borrowing two of Hans Hofman’s paintings for today’s examples. Look at the left-hand image above and focus in on the ochre color at the top, just right of center. Now in looking at the right-hand image, see if you can find the color that is the same ochre tone. There’s only one small portion that’s the same color. I adjusted the tones to match in Photoshop before placing them in today’s examples.

A clue: that ochre color in the left-hand image looks much greener than it does in the right-hand image. And that’s because of the red around it. I suppose you could say that a color is judged by the company it keeps.

We’ll see the answer in next week’s column.

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