Colour Constancy

One of the most fascinating illusions human perception is prone to is that of colour constancy. The astounding effect of this illusion is most clearly seen in this powerful illustration created by R. Beau Lotto. The blue tiles on the left and the yellow tiles on the right are both represented by the same neutral grey, but are perceived as completely different local colours within different colour spaces. This is the effect of our brain working to maintain consistent local colours of objects regardless of changing lighting conditions. Whilst this has significant advantages for survival and in our day to day lives, this illusion wreaks havoc on our ability to see the true colour of what we perceive and make accurate judgements on what colour to mix when working to make believable representational paintings.

Students often make the mistake of relying too much on their idea of the inherent or ‘local’ colour of an object. The local colour of an object is the colour seen in a perfectly balanced white light, such as the light of a fully overcast day. Thinking in this way can lead us into trouble as the perceived colour is always heavily affected by the character of the light source: a red object may present a purple colour in the lights if lit by a sufficiently cool light source or orange if lit by something warm. To combat this phenomenon, LARA students are encouraged to focus on ‘painting the light’ of their subject rather than focusing on the ‘colour’ of the objects themselves. Colour choices must be made within their proper context.

Nowhere was this idea of ‘painting the light’ more thoroughly explored than in Claude Monet’s series of Haystack paintings. Completed between the years 1888 and 1891, Monet explores an extraordinary range of light effects on the most humble of subjects. Students would do well to study the enormous range of hues and saturations that Monet recorded so delicately from the same subject. For him every new painting was a new puzzle to be solved, nothing was assumed. This is the attitude we should always take when approaching a new painting.

by Charlie Pickard

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