Autumn color study – Colors affected by light

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Autumn, you either hate it or love it. It means the end of the summer, but it's also the beginning of an amazingly beautiful color palette. The colors of the deciduous trees start shifting color from green to yellows, oranges, bright red, and earthy tones. Some plants start blooming, others grow their fruits and seedpods. Not to mention the broad variety of mushrooms that start to pop out of every nook and cranny. All and all, autumn is the season of abundance. Animals can now stock up for the harsh winter to come. And artists get out of their hidey holes for a seasonal color study

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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Autumn color study

Why autumn you may ask? Well, why not. Truth to be told: Today I was strolling in the forest after a workout and it reminded me of how beautiful autumn is if you forget for a moment that the days are generally dark and short, especially towards wintertime. The sky was blue, the sun bright, and the forest looked as if it was on fire! If you are an artist like me, you keep seeing more and more things, and well, I just ended up being inspired, and this is the result of that inspiration!

The use of color study’s

Color is the result of light. Without light, no color can exist. But that’s not where it stops. Color is affected by the surrounding colors, textures, moisture on a surface, translucency of an object and so much more! So it’s not a standalone subject. There are many factors that affect color and the way it looks to the human eye. In this particular article, we will discuss a few of these factors, specifically the most objective and common kinds of native colors of a few objects that are somewhat translucent but not completely: Leaves.

Local color

Photo by Barış Selcen on Unsplash
There is a reason why we love gemstones so much. When properly cut, they can disperse light in such a way that the brightest parts are actually the most colorful.
Photo by Barış Selcen on Unsplash

Local color, also known as source color or mid-tone is the true color of an object when it’s not lit by a bright light source nor hides in the dark. You can expect to see this kind of color best when it’s an overcast day. Sunlight is not hitting the surface of an object on such days, so the ‘bright’ side is mostly showing the local color. On sunny days you can expect to see this color right between the places where the sun hits and shadow starts to take over.

By nature, the local color is relatively saturated compared to the shadow side and the (sun)lit side. This is because, on the shadow side of an object, black and gray take over. On the lit side, whites take over. This is not an immediate transition, and not always true, depending on the nature of an object, but with most things, this is the rule.

Shadow color

Shadow colors can be any color. Stating that they’re always cool colors like blues, purples, and greens is untrue. Most of the time this is right, but when for example a blue light is used in a red environment, the light source is cold, but the shadows can very well be of warm tones. The idea that shadows always look ‘cold’ may come from the fact that they’re always relatively dark in nature compared to the rest of the object. And living in a world with a yellow-ish sun, anything looks kinda cold compared to that. Our world is also shaped to ‘warm’ light. Our light bulbs are usually yellowish in color. We don’t like cool lights in our homes, or on the streets. We’re used to the warm colors of sunlight.

On top of that, we associate sunlight with warmth, so the idea that orange, yellow, and red are warm colors is actually a bias, something you need to learn to look through if you want to take a somewhat realistic approach to your art.

This twig with autumn leaves is pictured from below with the sun shining mostly from above. This helps display different kinds of light, like direct light, subsurface scattering, mid-tones, and shadow tones.

Light color and highlights

Light colors and highlights lean into the pastel side of the color wheel. It eventually desaturates the local color of an object into whites if the surface is reflective enough. Otherwise, it may retain some pastel colors or lean into light grays, but in both cases, fairly desaturated colors depending on the local color. Sunlight is mostly warm white light. Or white with an orangy tint, so it tends to fire up the local color before it starts desaturating into pastels and whites, but even then, it’s lighter than the local color.

Highlights are the lightest part of a lit surface. It’s usually very well visible on the edges of an object, or right where the sunlight bounces off of an object into your eyes. These highlights are mostly fairly spares compared to local colors, light colors, and shadows. In the case of the image above, you mostly see rim lights going on, but within the direct light sources, you can find highlights as well.

Subsurface scattering

Subsurface scattering, you see it right on the edge of the brightest parts. Subsurface scattering in this case is caused by a mix of warm light, skin, and blood vessels, creating a vibrant bright color.

Subsurface scattering is very interesting. It happens when light travels through an object and starts scattering within before leaving that object again. It gives really saturated colors. In the case of autumn leaves, or for example the hand to the right, it gives bright orange and red colors which are relatively saturated compared to that same surface hit by direct sunlight. It also tends to be more saturated than the local colors because, while it’s scattering through the surface, the color of the light adds up to everything that lays inside the object it shines through. This can be done with other colors too. Add blue light to a yellow surface and you have green subsurface scattering for example. It mixes like any other kind of color would, the colors just tend to be darker and more saturated.

The fact that the subsurface scattering in human skin, or in autumn leaves is so warm of color is because of the color of the leaf, and that of the skin and underlying blood vessels combined with the usually warm light around us.

Colors in relationship to one another

A well known illusion. In the first image it looks as if block A and B are of completely different contrasts, while in truth they’re not at all.
By Original by Edward H. Adelson – File created by Adrian Pingstone, based on the original created by Edward H. Adelson

Color theory can be a really daunting thing to learn. There’s not only light that affects color, but also texture, the thickness of a surface, its nature, how reflective it is, how transparent it is, and like that’ all is not enough, also the surrounding colors. The example to the right shows a simple optical illusion in gray-scale. The same things happen with colors. In a fairly dark forest, a relatively light brown leaf may look as if it’s bright yellow while it’s not. And it works vice versa too, have a dark-ish color in a light forest and it will appear almost black while when you extract the color with a color picked, for example, it might prove to be just dark brown or blue, and not black at all.

Optical illusions

If you combine specific (somewhat) saturated colors, especially when combined with near-grey colors, both colors may get distorted and like something else as well. This phenomenon is called Perceptual Constance. This phenomenon ensures that, when we see a green apple during a colorful sunset, it still looks like the same shade of green to us. This is despite the fact the color is actually closer to orange during sunset.
We can do this by comparing surrounding colors and our knowledge about them. The grass is green. So, even when we didn’t see the green apple before, we can tell that the apple is green too, because the color is similar to that of grass, even while the grass is not green during a colorful sunset.

This can work ‘against’ us as well, just look at the picture below, and slide it around. What first seemed green is in fact one red color on the color wheel. This color only sometimes leans to pastels and whites and sometimes to blacks and grays. Because we know that water is blue-ish, and trees green-ish, we think the colors are actually there. This mental theory is supported by the fact that the contrasts in the photo are accurately displayed.

Image edited from: Wikipedia
Image edited from: Wikipedia

Outdoor color studies

As you can see, there is a lot to tell and learn about color. In my opinion, you need to understand color to a level that it becomes ‘natural’. Understanding the theory is helpful. But it’s far more useful if color theory becomes second nature. And what better but going outside on a sunny day and just observing colors? Try to overcome the tricks your mind is playing on you. Try to see what’s really there. And while you’re at it: Make pictures. Make pictures without filters, they’re closest to what’s really there. If you can: Use a normal camera and not your phone. Phones often have distorted colors, even without filters. But if you don’t have a camera, it’s not really a big problem.

When you’re at home, open this picture on your computer and see if your guesses were right, and turn them into color studies. You can do so in the following ways:

  • Overpaint while color picking
  • You try to copy the image by freehanding, using the color picker
  • You try to copy the image without colorpicking, but check afterwards
  • Or you do what I did below if you want to keep things simple.

I’m sure there are more ways you can go about it. but I do recommend that you do photo studies or overpaints regularly. Actually, anytime you come across something new or interesting. It’s extremely helpful, and it’s a really good way to quickly get a ‘feel’ for color.

Color study from a local forest.
Photo by: Tessa Geniets

More topics about color

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