This online tutorial is a
transcription from a 2002 lecture I gave at the Courage of
Your Perceptions Conference
(Satellite to the EC's Vision
Scientists' Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland.
two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are a means
to place identities/forms through spatial depth.
In Part 1
I discussed how
this theory works with gray tonal
scales and in paintings with limited color range. Let's see
what happens when we introduce intense colors.
It's important to note
that contrast in color is not so much about light
and dark but, rather, its about color opposites. For
example here is a classic color wheel in which
opposite colors, also known as complimentary colors,
Red vs. Green
Blue vs. Orange
Yellow vs. Violet
In this diagram
blue violet is the background color and the discs that come the
closest to it in color recede, while the yellow one, its
opposite, pops forward.
Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, September 1888
Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.5 cm
Rijksmuseum Kroller-Mueller, Otterlo
Van Gogh painting has an intense blue background and the orange
yellow café comes forward. Notice the buildings beyond the café
are variations on darks and blues. The window straight up above
the café is literally transparent but if you look closely
you will see the blue sky winking throughout sections of the
buildings, giving them a transparent quality as well.
Shifting to the
opposite extreme from blue we go to a scarlet background. The
light turquoise disc comes forward.
school I was taught that cool colors go back and warm
colors come forward, this diagram contradicts that idea.
Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889
Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. (73.7 x 92.7 cm)
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
orange sky and ground. The green silvery leaves of the olive
trees come forward to us. The ground recedes towards the sky as
it gets intensely orange.
I think you are
getting the idea of the diagrams. You can take any color as
a background, mix in a few closely matching colors and then
smack in an opposite color; it will pop forward.
Pastels, 1991, oil on wood, 11 x 14 inches.
Collection Cynthia Ruhl
life has a red background. Notice the wood base underneath the
pastel boxes at the upper right side of the canvas--it is
intensely colored with oranges which help it recede from us
towards the red floor. Also notice the box of red, orange, and
magenta pastels and how it is visually underneath the "blue" box
with its "cool" colors popping forward.
Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 29 in. (92 x 73.5 cm)
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
here to notice:
1) The intense blue irises that overhang in front of the jar.
2) The color of the irises that drop behind the jar have more
yellow mixed in with the blue. This is a less intense blue of
the forward flowers which helps increase the distance between
3) The central highlight on the vase is transparent, almost the
same color as the background. This helps increase the distance
between it and the intense blue flowers in front.
2000, acrylic on linen, 55 x 36 inches
a combination of both the high contrast of light and dark, and the
color contrast between the orange and the blue. Notice the
spatial distance between his left foot and the right. The left
foot has a lot of blue mixed in with it to help it recede. Like
in the example of the irises of Van Gogh. Notice also the
contrast of light and dark of the tip of his head at his
hairline and compare that to the less intense contrast of the
lights and darks of his shoulders.
Look at the
arch of the blue sky and how it recedes towards a pale magenta
at the horizon. Notice how the water mirrors the sky in this
On the left see
the intense orange of the trees and notice how they are closer
to us than the trees on the right. And look how the trees
further away from us have a much more pale magenta mixed in with
thing is the high contrast of color of the orange reflections of
the trees and the blue sky on the water, shooting the water
underneath our feet.
Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast
are a means to place identities/forms through spatial depth.