Help me understand color theory from a mechanistic perspective
July 19, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

How can we (as precisely as possible) characterize what colors go well together? What underlying physical/biological or mathematical explanations underpin the recommendations of artistic color theory? I am particularly interested in the culturally invariant component of these models, if any such components can be extracted.

We have a pretty good idea of why certain sounds are harmonious/dissonant. We may have started out with "notes from this scale sound good together", but we eventually came to understand "notes are characterized by their fundamental frequencies; harmony between notes is greater for rational intervals q/k where q and k are small integers" AND THEN we came to understand that this is partially explained by the perceptual interference created between harmonics that lie within a critical band's width of one another. I could even write a computer program that could rank different sets of frequencies by how harmonious/dissonant it estimates those sets to be, and I would expect it to perform pretty well.

The physiological component of audio judgments is something that can be pretty mechanistically characterized (which you'd expect- much of the process is done by machines that happen to be made with carbon). The cultural component is not so easily characterized; I'm comfortable deciding that it is irrelevant for my current purposes.

I am looking for an analogous understanding of color judgments. In particular, if I have a set of colors (e.g. as defined numerically in a color space of your choice) what sorts of numeric relationships might help me predict how harmonious/dissonant that set of colors might be? Why do sites like this make the recommendations they do? What sorts of mechanisms (e.g. "your thalamus has to do this thing, and here's how dissonant colors don't work as well with that") might help explain the particular form of the numerical models?
posted by Jpfed to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to the mechanics of why colors are perceived to be pleasing, but having a color theory 101 class under my belt as part of my design degree I can point out that website is using some pretty basic "rules" of color theory. Analogous, triad, tetrad, complimentary, split complimentary, all revolve around the color wheel and having colors a number of degrees apart. You can go to any art supply store and pick up a color wheel to demonstrate.

The history of "color" is fascinating and intrinsically culturally entwined. Many cultures through out time only had 3 or 4 words for color, roughly translating to "white" "black" "red" and "blue", where blue includes green, yellow & purple. Is this because of linguistics? Because of limited access to pigments in their environment? The relationship between linguistics and thought, and neuro-phsyiology is something I'd talk over a 3rd glass of wine about, but don't really have any qualifications to speak on.

But anywho, back to the color wheel as we know it. It exists in its current form mostly because it was fashionable for Sir Issac Newton to say "Yep, 7 colors" and people got a tingly feeling down their spine at the number 7. 7 days of the week, 7 (known) planets in the solar system, lets tie this all up in a nice even bow then shall we? A brief history and examples of early color schemes can be found here.

Color: A History of the Pallet is a good read if you're interested in learning about pigments and their history.

You'd probably be interested in how an app's color mixer UI developers couldn't rely on numeric color spaces to have intuitive results. They ended up using surveys and hand keying in color combinations based on what their human users expected/computed.

Hope these are some leaping off points for you, and I'll be interested in watching this thread.
posted by fontophilic at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can go to any art supply store and pick up a color wheel to demonstrate.

I think you will want to to think in terms of hue, value, and chroma. Most color wheels and most color instruction does a very poor job of addressing poor job of addressing that, and approach the subject of color and color mixing mostly in terms of hue and a favorite personal bag of tricks , instead of saying something like "now consider these two blobs of paint as two points in the Munsell color solid" which means the student has trouble conceptualizing, predicting, or analyzing the shifts in chroma and value when mixing the two blobs.

It may help to pick up some acrylic or oil paint with a high pigment content and grind through some exercises, along with the Munsell student book. In addition to James Gurney's notes and book. Not every book fails to teach hue, saturation, and value, but a great number of them do while still enjoying commercial success - a fact I find deeply troubling.

As a half-fledged art student, I privilege the Munsell system over, say, Pantone or
CIE 1931 color space, because it is complete enough to do a good realist painting and mix and match color paint by eye, while still being human readable. (It doesn't describe all of what light, pigment, dyes, and perception can do, but it is good enough to work with as a painter.), and the rest of is probably what you are looking for, on the subject of color theory and color mixing.

Why do sites like this make the recommendations they do?
Complementary color came out of projects like finding colors that neutralize to grey when mixed with a color top along with experiments of stuff like superimposing a blue color chip on an orange background. Somewhat systematic experiments and analysis, with perceptual psychologists working with painters. On the other hand, I think something like the tetrad color harmony is just a pure invention that is an evolution or elaboration of the complementary color harmony. One that may often work, but that doesn't have an associated model of the eye or brain's color perception.

My watercolor instructor teaches stuff like "and the accented analogic hues are also a good way to come up with the colors for a painting [demonstration and handwaving]" but doesn't use a numerical relationship for the stuff.

The person who coded the website, as likely as not, is probably just regurgitating a mix of material from a somewhat crappy book on color and a grab bag of bits of example code, perhaps coupled with personal experience like a huge body of time spent oil painting, photoshopping, or formally studying and working on graphic design.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:29 PM on July 19, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you for the suggested readings up to this point. I should note that my perspective is that of a computer guy who is not involved with paint at all. Everything I do is going to be in terms of color spaces that are represented on computers.

I am aware that the site is regurgitating ideas from elsewhere; I worded that part poorly. More to the point was- what basis do the regurgitated ideas have? While no doubt there was some experiential basis that lead early artists to settle on these ideas (just as one can stumble on just intonation by tuning a zither by ear), I'm most interested in explanations that go from the mechanisms of perception to aesthetic judgments.
posted by Jpfed at 1:41 PM on July 19, 2013

Yep, hue, value and chroma are important here. I am a needleworker/crocheter, so by necessity my colour perception is a lot more developed than that of people who don't use colour for work or hobbies as much as I do. I score something like 7 on the Munsell test. I tend to think of colours by DMC thread numbers or yarn names rather than Pantone codes, though, so I can't really explain scientifically how colour harmonises or jars for me.

I've been trying to put together a continuous spectrum of yarn for a project, and it has been very difficult as if something isn't the same 'value' of colour as the colours next to it (think a rainbow with a chalky red, a neon yellow, and a chalky orange) it's very jarring to me to the point where I couldn't live with it.
posted by mippy at 2:40 PM on July 19, 2013

I'm most interested in explanations that go from the mechanisms of perception to aesthetic judgments.
addresses the subject in detail.

More to the point was- what basis do the regurgitated ideas have?
It depends.

Picking complementary colors via opposing points on a hue wheel seems to have a basis in perception and pigment and stuff. But since much of the discourse about this is by people who are very clumsy when they describe specific hues, and who are downright ignorant of saturation and value, this suggests that much of the critical thinking and associated teaching of color theory and color harmony is flawed.

It might be that a given analysis of a particular split complementary should be jettisoned in favor of seeing it as an elegant way to come up with a reduced color gamut for a painting or design piece.

There's some stuff about how human visual perception is adapted to see pigments in the natural world under a range of lighting conditions, but handprint's explanation of this is better than my attempts at paraphrasing it.

I should note that my perspective is that of a computer guy who is not involved with paint at all. Everything I do is going to be in terms of color spaces that are represented on computers.

If you want to get really good with color, you may want to grind through the paint and Munsell book exercises. Even if everything you do subsequently is digital. It will force you to make careful decisions about color and will train the brain.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:05 PM on July 19, 2013

Response by poster: The handprint link was really good; if it represents the state of the art, that implies our understanding of mechanisms underlying color harmony is just fairly primitive right now.
posted by Jpfed at 9:03 PM on August 18, 2013

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