Chapter 10: Let’s Get Muddy

We have already briefly touched upon the subject of pure color when we analyzed Petrov-Vodkin’s Bathing of a Red Horse in one of the previous chapters. I think it is time to discuss this topic in detail. Pure colors are colors of maximum intensity, not mixed with any other colors – chromatic or monochrome (black, white, or gray in any gradation). Let’s create an abstract palette of pure colors. For this task it is convenient to use the computer HSB model of color representation, where H stands for Hue and is measured along a color wheel in values ranging from 0 to 360 degrees; S stands for Saturation and can range from 0 to 100%; and B stands for Brightness (Lightness in this book) and also ranges from 0 to 100%. HSB model does have its disadvantages, but it is easy to build and good for demonstration of pure colors. With S and B both set at 100% (maximum values) we will now change the value of H with a 30-degree step and arrive at a 12-color palette. We could have used other methods to get the same result, but it doesn’t really matter here. Let us instead concentrate on the pure colors (Figure 10.1)7.

7 Color intensity in this palette is only as high as the printing capacity of this book would allow. However, it is high enough to demonstrate the nuances of color perception that I am going to discuss.

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.1. A 12-hue palette of saturated colors. HSB model values: S =100, B=100, H = from 0 to 330 with a 30 degree step.

Those readers who are not new to visual experiences know that that many of the pure colors in the upper row do not go well together. A less experienced reader, however, may still need some convincing, and I hope my explanations and examples will help to clear away the doubts. The main reason for the lack of harmony between the pure colors is the lack of the common ground between them, the absence of anything that might bring them closer together. The only thing that unites all these colors is the mathematical calculation, which brought them about in the first place. And there are too many colors there for them to share any single property. Now, if we take the neighboring colors from the palette above and view them in pairs, they will look much better than in a group (Figure 10.2).

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.2. Pairs of neighboring colors from the pure colors palette.

In his book, The Art of Color, a world-renowned artist and theorist of color, Johannes Itten, writes:

“When people speak of color harmony, they are evaluating the joint effect of two or more colors. Experience and experiments with subjective color combinations show that individuals differ in their judgments of harmony and discord. The color combinations called “harmonious” in common speech usually are composed of closely similar chromas, or else of different colors in the same shades. They are combinations of colors that meet without sharp contrast. As a rule, the assertion of harmony or discord simply refers to an agreeable-disagreeable or attractive-unattractive scale. Such judgments are personal sentiments without objective force. The concept of color harmony should be removed from the realm of subjective attitude into that of objective principle.”

True to his word, Itten attempts to theorize the notion of “color harmony” and bring more objectivity to its evaluation; his logic largely resting on the initial assumption that harmony is a balance and a certain order of things. As many other scholars before him, he begins his argument by discussing physiology, namely, the “afterimage” effect. It goes like this: if you look at a color for some time, and then close your eyes, the mental image will be of a complimentary color: if you look at a green square, your mind will compliment it with a red afterimage. By making this and similar observations about color perception, Itten was able to build a system of harmonious colors and a 12-hue color circle (Figure 10.3) based on the 7 types of contrast that he identified: contrast of hue; light-dark contrast; cold-warm contrast; complementary contrast; simultaneous contrast; contrast of saturation; contrast of extension.

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.3. The 12-hue color circle8

8 This circle is modeled on the basis of Itten’s iconic 12-hue color circle and adopted for representation in standard digital color spaces (RGB, CMYK and Lab).

Discussing different color harmonies, Itten limits the number of hues that can have enough contrast (be placed in different parts of his color circle) and be capable of harmony at the same time: “We can make the general statement that all complementary pairs, all triads whose colors form equilateral or isosceles triangles in the twelve-member color circle, and all tetrads forming squares or rectangles, are harmonious”.

A side note: in music, too, you will rarely find a chord that consists of more than four notes of different pitches (the seventh chord). And the eleventh and the thirteenth chords (containing 6 and 7 notes) are so rare, that the musical reference books often write them off as lacking harmony. Writes one encyclopedia, “…the notes in these chords are never played simultaneously since this would create dissonance.” “It is rare and not used due to the dissonance in sound”, writes another one. It doesn’t follow, however, that all musical pieces consist of combinations of maximum four notes, and all paintings are done in no more than four colors, but it is objectively difficult for a human to process polyphony of more than four differently pitched notes, and you can rarely find a painting incorporating all colors at the same time.

As a rule, the chromatic scheme of a painting incorporates a few base colors and some accents. The color variety is achieved not by piling up hues, but through incorporating different intensity values of a limited number of chosen colors (i.e. their shades and tints) or through mixing of these colors between each other. Valentin Zheleznyakov offers an interesting story illustrating this principle:

“In June 1985, the State Hermitage Museum9 almost lost an amazing artwork by Rembrandt, Danae. Colorimetric analysis that was performed during the restoration works on the painting revealed that Rembrandt had only used a few colors, but their distribution on the canvas was astonishing in its intricacy. That is, all that chromatic and tonal richness that we can perceive when we look at this painting is the result of skillful combination of base colors that are by no means exotic”.

9 On the 15th of June 1985 a psychotic visitor poured acid of Rembrandt’s painting, Danae. The painting was badly damaged in its central part, lost a lot of color, and later underwent a very complicated process of restoration completed only in 1997. (Translator’s note)

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.4. Rembrandt van Rijn. Danae. 1636-1647

Aleksandr Zavarin, an amazing artist and one of the people whose expertise made this book possible, shared this personal anecdote:

“As a student at Stroganov Academy of Art, I wasn’t very keen on painting. To be honest, I wasn’t very good at it either. So I shared my concerns with a friend, who related a practical advice, which he, in his turn, had heard from an old artist and a friend of his. The idea was to get rid of all the colors, leave only red ochre, yellow ochre, white and black – and use these four colors for everything: landscapes, portraits, still-life, you name it. I did that, and got my first A in a fine art class. This is how I really learned to see the color. I introduced the other colors back – with time, but I still prefer moderation when it comes to palettes”.

This moderation in color, which comes from only using a few base hues, is so expressive in Aleksandr’s work that I couldn’t help sharing a reproduction of one of his paintings here (Figure 10.5).

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.5. Aleksandr Zavarin, Mushroom Hunting

If you need to harmonize many hues in an image, you can only do it by bringing the hues closer to each other. This can be achieved by lowering the color contrast (difference between the colors), making the palette less “disheveled” and varied. There are a few techniques that will help you with this:

  1. Lower the saturation of all colors, as if you were to mix every color with a dash of grey.
  2. Add a third hue to each color.
  3. Mix a little of every other color in each base color.

Note, that the last method will only work if you started out with a small number of colors, because a lot of colors mixed together will give you grey, and in this case you might just want to start with the first method from the get go.

Let’s concentrate on the first two techniques. Please, keep in mind that the harmonization of pure colors (Figure 10.1) needs adding other hues, and that makes them “muddier”. Artists are not afraid of doing this: as far as they are concerned, “muddy” colors fuse the painting together. Incidentally, in the professional art jargon “fuse” (from Latin diffusio – to spread) also stands for a “muddy” layer of colors that remains on the wooden palette after the mixing is done.

The easiest way to harmonize colors is to desaturate them. Let’s take our palette from Figure 10.1 and apply Hue/Saturation with Saturation value of -50 (Figure 10.6 [a]). To keep the initial lightness intact for each color (for comparison purposes later on) we used the color overlay (Figure 10.6 [b]). Figure 10.7 is the resulting palette.

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.6 [a, b]. Tools used to lower color saturation in the original 12-hue color palette.

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.7. 12-hue palette with desaturated colors

At first it seems that the colors have lost their expressiveness, became too subdued. But be careful not to jump to conclusions. Look at this color scheme and then turn back to the palette presented in Figure 10.1. Many will agree, I think, that this time it is the original combination that gives out all the wrong signals: it hurts just looking at it now, although it didn’t in the beginning.

Let’s continue our experiment. To intensify our palette a little bit, let’s add a little more color (make it even “muddier”) – only this time, we will use one of the colors from those that we already have. Say, this yellow from the top row (third square to the left). We could choose a different color for tinting, but warm tones work better from the point of view of perception: most people prefer warm to cool, so the effect from mixing in some yellow will be more visible. To do the actual mixing we are going to use Photo Filter with Density set at 50% (Figure 10.8). The result is presented in Figure 10.9.

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.8. Photo Filter tool with a 50% density setting used to mix in yellow color

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.9. The 12-hue palette, tinted yellow

Note how the saturation has increased again in the new version of the palette, but the hues look much better alongside each other than in the initial set up with pure colors (Figure 10.1). This palette better fits the definition of “breathing”, true to life photographs as well.

We could go on and on with our experiments, making them more complicated at each step, but for initial demonstration of harmonization of pure and “muddy” colors we have done quite enough. If the reader still curious about chromatic harmony, I advise to consult the books that I mention in my discussion of color; you will find a “starter” reading list in a special chapter dedicated to artistic experience.

Another important observation about pure and “muddy” colors is connected with highlights. Let’s look at an oversaturated photograph and compare it to a less saturated version (Figure 10.10 [a, b]).

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.10 [a, b]

Due to oversaturation (Figure 10.10 [a]) the neighboring hues collapsed together – they reached the peak of their intensity and became identical, which led to the emergence of pure colors – the effect is especially vivid in red. In RGB color space red has a value of RGB (255, 0, 0), meaning that it doesn’t contain either green or blue overtones in the mix. However, we are only able to perceive this pure color as such because there are large areas of it in the image – there are no light intensity variations, no tonal or saturation differences there (Figure 10.11 [a]). In a non-oversaturated version of the image (Figure 10.10 [b]; Figure 10.11 [b]), some pixels may well give a reading of RGB (255, 0, 0), but the pure color (difficult to harmonize, lacking in detail) will only become problematic if it fills significant portions of the picture.

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.11 [a, b]

How could one possibly add visible details to the image in Figure 10.11 [a]? Only by “drawing” them: by introducing “muddy” hues into the zone of the pure, oversaturated color. In other words, we would have to “muddy up” the red. From the technical point of view, making sure that your details don’t disappear while actually shooting and processing a photograph is much easier than adding the non-existing details later on (Figure 10.11 [b]).

As I have already said, texture can compensate for the lack of detail: be it the texture of canvas or paper, or film grain (Figure 10.12). This is why film photographs are more tolerant of oversaturation than digital images.

LIFELIKE book: Let's Get Muddy
Figure 10.12

Whether we like it or not, the chromatic harmony of a photograph will either limit the number of hues we can use or will make us introduce some “muddy” tones. Or even both, since even with small number of base colors you can achieve variety by mixing hues between each other and by adding some chromatically neutral tones to keep the lightness interesting, too.

LIFELIKE: A book on color in digital photography

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