Light and Color Illusions in Art

| February 20, 2010

I came upon something today that I just had to share with fellow artists. Lotto Lab has created a set of powerful color, motion and shape illusions that are quite relevant to us as artists as we strive to communicate accurate color and light in our paintings. Much of Lotto Lab’s research is centred on understanding how and why we see illusions, which quite frankly is what we are attempting to create when we translate our three dimensional luminescent surroundings onto our two dimensional reflective canvases. To understand how we see correctly we need to understand why it seems we sometimes see incorrectly. Illusions, therefore, are critical windows into the mind. What illusions tell us is that the mind is not trained to see the world ‘as it is’, but to see the world in a way that has proved useful to us in the past. In short, the brain continually redefines normality by referring to relationships that were useful in our development, including social and cultural influences. In the end, we must be cognizant of these influences and resist the temptation to let them overpower our senses so we can ultimately portray our scenes with authority and honesty.

Take the following image for example. If you were painting this scene, what color would you mix for the center square on each of the sides in light and shadow? My first inclination is to say, “brown on the top and yellow on the bottom.”

What color would you mix for the center squares?

Using a simple mask layer in Photoshop reveals that the the center squares in light and shadow are actually the same exact color! To paint this scene accurately, we would need to use the same color and understand that it is what surrounds the color that creates the visual impression. Look at the image below to see proof through your own eyes. I am sure experienced painters can process this phenomenon subconsciously, but for newbies like me, this is powerful information!

Our ability to see is why artist's are awesome and people pay for paintings!

In the next example, look at the grays in both light and shadow within the stripes. How would you mix them?

What value are the gray stripes?

Using the same masking technique reveals that the dark grays in light and and the light grays in shadow are actually the same, but what they are surrounded by creates a completely different illusion.

The alarming truth of the grays is revealed!

I feel that having a better understanding of these principles will help me dial in color more accurately and limit my wandering down paths of color that lead nowhere. I will certainly work harder to to see more accurately after considering the power of illusion. If you want more heavy reading on this topic, I encourage you to visit the Lotto Lab site for more information.

Images courtesy of R. Beau Lotto

Category: Fine Art and Painting

Comments (3)

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  1. Dana Cooper says:

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing…I love that kind of thing!

  2. Pam Holnback says:

    Thank you so much for the apron! I love it and will wear it with honor! Great post. It is so true about color. Whatever color note you put down in your painting is affected by the one next to it. Each note depends upon another.

  3. Lee says:

    Hi Dana. I too am fascinated by this! It really got me thinking about how I need to pay more attention to getting the right colors on the canvas.

    Hi Pam! You finally got it! I am glad you like the apron. You and Dana both have aprons now. I can’t think of two better art bloggers to give them to!