Seeing Color: Local, Perceived, and Pictorial Color

Painting showing perceived color of Rio de Chama, NM
Painting of Rio de Chama, NM. Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

The color we actually see depends on light - the quality of light, the angle of light, and reflected light. Light creates shadows, highlights, and subtle color changes on objects, giving them the complexity and richness evident in the real world.  This is perceived color. Distinct from that is the color that experience and our brains tell us that the object is, uninfluenced by light. It is based on a preconceived idea of what the color of a thing is.

For example, we know that lemons are yellow; oranges are orange; apples are red. This is local color.

The goal of the painter, though, is to see beyond preconceived notions of color. As Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) said, "It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object."

Local Color

In painting, local color is the the natural color of an object in ordinary daylight, without the influence of reflected light from adjacent colors. So, bananas are yellow; apples are red; leaves are green; lemons are yellow; the sky on a clear day is blue; tree trunks are brown or gray. Local color is the most basic broad-brush approach to perceptual color, and is how children are first taught to see and identify color and objects. It incorporates the effect of color constancy, in which our brains recognize the true color of an object despite different lighting conditions.

This helps us to simplify and make sense of our environment.

However, if everything existed only in local color, the world would look flat and unnatural since it wouldn't have the lights and darks that suggest the three-dimensionality of the real world. But if we constantly noticed every little nuance of value and color shift in the real world, the visual stimuli would be overwhelming.

Therefore, we see local color as a useful way to simplify, edit, and quickly describe our surroundings.

This is also true in painting. Just as local color helps us simplify and describe our environment, it is also a good place to start when painting. Begin a painting by blocking in, and naming, the local color of the largest shapes of the subject of the painting. In the 3-part process to painting that author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Buy from Amazon), Betty Edwards, describes in her book, Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors (Buy from Amazon), she calls this step "the first pass." She explains that by completely covering the white canvas or paper with the local color you eliminate the effect of simultaneous contrast caused by the bright white surface, allowing you to see the main colors, and are laying down the important foundation for the rest of the painting.(1) This approach works for any subject matter, including landscape, portrait, and still-life painting.

Many famous paintings used local color, such as in 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer'sThe MilkmaidThere is little change in color of the milkmaid's clothing, painted in luminous lead-tin and ultramarine, other than some slight tonal changes to suggest three-dimensionality.

  Vermeer was more of a tonal painter, which is almost an extension of drawing and shading. Tonal paintings can create the illusion of reality and luminosity, exquisitely so, as do Vermeer's paintings, but do not have the color range that paintings do that use perceived color more expressively.   

Perceived Color

After blocking in the local color it is time for "the second pass," using Edwards' term, in the three-part painting process - to go back in and paint the perceived color. The perceived color consists of the subtle changes in hue affected by the color of the light and by the colors around it, including the effect of simultaneous contrast between two adjacent colors, and reflections of ambient colors cast on your subject. 

If you are outside or working under natural light, the colors will also be affected by the season, weather conditions, the time of day, and your distance from the subject.

 You may be surprised by the hues of colors that actually work together to create the illusion of reality. Most plein air painters are painting perceived color, trying to capture the unique combination of light and atmosphere that is giving the colors their particular hue on a specific day, at a certain time and location. 

Color Isolator

A color isolator is a great aid in helping you paint what you see. It is a basic tool that isolates a color from its surroundings and adjacent colors, making it easier for you to perceive and identify the actual color you see. 

The Artist's ViewCatcher (Buy from Amazon) is a very useful tool made of sturdy, neutral gray plastic, that helps you determine how to frame your composition and has a small round opening that lets you isolate colors within your subject so that you can see the true color and its value without the distraction of its surroundings. By closing one eye and looking at the color you're trying to identify through the hole, you can see more clearly what the color actually is by isolating it from its context.

You can also make your own color isolator by using a single hole punch to put a hole in a thick piece of cardboard or mat board. You want to choose white, neutral gray, or black. You can also make an isolator that has all three different values - white, medium gray, and black - so that you can compare the color you are isolating to its closest value. To do this you can divide a 4" x 6" piece of mat board or cardboard into three different sections 4" x 2" each, painting one white, one gray, and one black.

Then, using a single hole punch, put a hole into the ends of each different value. You can also use a 3" x 5" an old credit card for this.  

Alternatively, you can go to the paint store and get gray-scale paint sample cards, such as those from Sherwin Williams, and, using a single hole paper punch, put a hole in each color within the sample to create a viewing device throughout a range of values.

Through this process of isolating colors you will begin to see that what you might have assumed was one color, based on a preconceived notion of its color, is actually much more complex and interesting, with hues that you might never have imagined. 

When painting representationally, remember to paint what you see, rather than what you think you see. That way, you will move beyond local color to perceived color, making your colors more visually complex and your paintings richer. 

Pictorial Color

Even when you get the perceived color right, though, it may still not be the right color for the painting. This is what makes painting really interesting. Because ultimately it is the finished painting that you are most concerned with, not your subject. When you think you have seen and matched the colors correctly, it is time to step back and assess the pictorial color. This is the third pass in the three-part painting process. Are the colors in harmony with each other? Do they reinforce the intent and focal point of your painting? Are the values right? 

Color is relative to light, time, place, atmosphere, and context.

The brilliance of colors outside will translate to pigment differently, and paintings done under outside light may need adjustment when brought inside.

Due to the different physical nature of paint, light and air, it can be hard with landscape painting to convey the effect of the brilliance of the light or drama of the place by faithfully reproducing the colors that one sees in the landscape. You may have to adjust colors and values somewhat to effectively capture the emotion or truth of the feeling of a place, as the painter did in the image shown above. This is the final step of seeing and using color to express not only what you see, but also your personal vision.

Further Reading and Viewing

Oil Painting Workship #4 - Seeing Color Demonstration: How to Identify Color Accurately​ (video)

Pochade Box Paintings: Gray Scale - Value Finder - Color Isolator

Gurney Journey: Color Isolator

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REFERENCES

1. Edwards, Betty, Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors, Penguin Group, New York, 2004, p. 120

RESOURCES

Albala, Mitchell, Landscape Painting, Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice, Watson-Guptill Publications, 2009

Sarbach, Susan, Capturing Radiant Light and Color in Oil and Pastel, North Light Books, 2007