The Space of Color Part 2 - The Power of Unwanted Colors

In The Space of Color Part 1 the “unwanted” colors are introduced, and this article will explain the essential power of contaminants.  On the color wheel rim of purity a secondary color is made of the mixture of the primary colors that are adjacent to it (i.e. orange = yellow+red, green = yellow+blue, violet = blue+red).  The wanted colors are the two primaries that mix to create a pure secondary hue, and the unwanted color is the other primary that is not contained in that mixture. If you start to get lost in the infinite possibilities of color mixing, you can always get your bearings by sorting colors into categories of yellow, red, or blue.

The 12 chromatic hues that sit on the rim of the color wheel are static in their purity - fully realized as the hue for which they are named.  When the human eye perceives pure colors there is a momentary shock, but it is followed quickly by visual boredom.  Alfred Hitchcock explained his theory of suspense: Picture a scene in a movie where a bomb explodes from under a desk in an office.  There is a sudden jolt of surprise, but the recovery from the shock happens quickly.  Now imagine a scene where you watch a person place the bomb under the desk.  There is a drawn out anticipation as you watch another person enter the room and sit at the desk as you wait for the explosion. 

A painting that is made of a palette of pure color has a jolting affect momentarily, but the jolt does not sustain.  When cone cells are saturated by the perception of pure color they become blind to that color, causing an afterimage effect of the opposite color.  There are many more possibilities of using color for lasting intrigue by using the “unwanted” colors in the mixtures. "Unwanted" colors are essential for stimulating our appreciation of pure colors.  We have natural desire to see pure color.  If pure color is used sparingly the excitement of seeing it is like discovering hidden jewels.

“Unwanted" colors are the secret tool for making pure colors exciting. By kicking pure colors from their static thrones on the rim of purity they move, refresh, and reinvent themselves interacting with other colors in The Space of Color sphere.  There is a sliding scale in and out from the rim of purity to the central core of neutrality.  A pure color changes by the slightest contaminant - from looking “dirty” to being made completely neutral. 

Colors and gray values are visible to the human eye by comparison with other colors and values.  A light value appears lighter when it is next to or surrounded by a darker value, and vice versa for a dark value.  As mentioned in The Space of Color Part 1, a healthy human eye and brain perceives color through 3 color sensors.  So, all colors reveal a yellowness, a redness, and a blueness by comparison to each other.  It is important to allow your eyes to roam around and refresh your cone cells for perceiving color.

Colors have a natural magnetic pull to their primary origin.  Your eyes want to see the essential primary color in a contaminated color. 

The magnetic pull of colors is similar to music.  There are 12 chromatic steps in a Western musical scale.  Those 12 notes can be arranged in harmonically pleasing combinations.  There is a similarity between keys in music and keys of color palettes.  Our emotions and physical reactions to hearing music are similar to the ways we are affected by color. 

A deceptive cadence can be used in both music and color.  In music a deceptive cadence occurs when the melody uses a note or chord from a different key, exciting the anticipation for a key change.  “The Blues” music manipulates emotion by using deceptive cadence by bending notes, and insinuating pure notes or key changes that do not happen.  The listener is pushed to a state of physical and emotional yearning.  “Unwanted” colors are useful in creating deceptive cadences in the magnetic movement of color.  For example, the mixing of pure yellow and pure red will make a pure static orange, which creates a short lived impact.  Instead, the mixture of a contaminated yellow (chartreuse) and vermillion creates a dirty, complex, jazzy orange with a golden yellow glow between the decision to move toward red or green. 

The direction of the movement is orchestrated by the introduction of another color in proximity. Colors that share primary colors want to link up, and “unwanted” colors want to contrast and magnetically repel in a dance inside The Space of Color. 

“The Color Doctor” - Joan Levy Hepburn     January 2018


On this page you may read a series of articles written by Joan Levy Hepburn, alias "The Color Doctor", which will clarify how to perceive and use color.  Joan teaches color workshops for a more in depth study and practical use of color, and is also a color consultant. 

The Space of Color Part 3 - Real Estate and Localion, Location!

The previous articles about The Space of Color describe the relationship between pure color and neutral.  The comparison of wanted and unwanted colors affects the perception of both.  Color and value is affected by real estate and location!  

A large area of dark value makes a small area of light value appear lighter, and vice versa. 

The wanted and unwanted colors define the exact nature and differences in colors.  The amount of unwanted color is always dominated by the wanted colors, and easily affected by proximity to other colors.  When a large field of color surrounds or is near a smaller area of color the larger field dominates and changes the other color.   For example,  if a small area of a contaminated orange (an orange containing blue) is surrounded by a larger field of blue, the blue field reclaims the contaminant from the orange and makes it appear more pure.  Opposite colors of a similar small size and placed next to each other are mixed in perception and create neutral. 

When two colors of the same hue are compared the balance of the primary colors alters temperature and movement of the color.  Warm colors contain yellow and cool colors are blue.  For example,  Yellow and blue are the wanted colors in green, but the dominance of either will affect the temperature of the hue.  The unwanted color in green pigment is red - (so if you want to mix a very bright clean green you must avoid yellow and blue pigments that contain red!).  

The slightest amount of unwanted color will dirty or gray a pure hue.  Mixtures that contain unwanted colors are the colors that move from the rim of purity into the space of the color sphere.  Restrained use of pure colors in a painting allow the contaminated colors to enhance the brilliance of pure colors.  The unwanted colors also activate movement in a painting by leading the eye to the rhythm of the placement of the pure colors.  Dirty colors are not static in their identity.  They are subject to many possibilities of change as they move in space affected by the magnetic pull of pure colors in proximity.  

The distribution of different amounts and placements of color in a painting create balance, movement, and space.  Pure colors advance and recede against the flat surface of the canvas, while contaminated colors and grays carve into deeper sculpted space.  All parts of a unified painting are in balance.  Adjusting any area of a painting affects the overall balance.  An unsettled area can often be resolved by adjusting a different part of the canvas.  

A reducing lens (a concave lens) is a very useful tool in viewing a painting.  Our eyes see a space of about 3 inches at a time,  so our eyes scan snapshots and our brain assembles them together into a picture.  The reducing lens allows the viewing of a whole painting at once instead of scanning separate parts.  The lens enhances the physical dynamics of the colors, so if any part of the painting does not sit well it is readily perceived. 

“The Color Doctor” - Joan Levy Hepburn    January 2018

Art at Murray Pond 


 Saturday,  APRIL 21, 2018

10:00am - 4:00pm


Art at Murray Pond in Killingworth, CT

Joan Levy Hepburn - "The Color Doctor" will lead a full-day workshop exploring the meaning and practical use of color as described on this page.

Lunch and all materials will be provided. Price $175

Early Registration is required!

Please call Joan at 860 663-1169 to register in advance.

The Space of Color Part 1

The common two-dimensional color wheel is a pleasing decorative design, revealing the primary and secondary mixtures of pure colors,  but it does not describe the fullest potential of color.  

The word “tertiary” often arouses argument about its meaning,  but it is the key to finding the most fulfilling appreciation of color.  The common definition of a tertiary color is: 

“Tertiary colors are intermediate colors that are made by mixing equal concentrations of a primary color with a secondary color adjacent to it on the color wheel.”  (Note that a secondary color adjacent to a primary contains that primary color - for example, orange is made of the mixture of the two primary colors yellow and red, so a yellow/orange is between yellow and orange, and orange/red is between orange and red - getting an extra dose of the primary color next to it.)  So those colors provide the stepping stones bridging the primary and secondary colors around the color wheel, and they include yellow/orange, orange/red, red/violet, blue/violet, blue/green, and yellow/green. There are 12 chromatic steps of pure colors on the color wheel when the primary, secondary and adjacent tertiary colors are counted.  

But that explanation only tells part of the story.  What happens if a primary and a secondary color are mixed, but the primary IS NOT part of the secondary color?  

Since yellow and red make orange, the only primary color that is not part of orange is the color blue.  Orange can only reach blue by leaving the rim of purity on the color wheel and stepping into the space inside the circle.  Blue is known to orange as contaminating, unwanted, dirty, and other derogatory descriptions, because it will lead orange to the core of the circle where it must surrender its hue identity to neutral.  The same is true for red and green, and yellow and violet.  

Now think of the color wheel not as a two-dimensional circle, but as a toy spinning top.  The rim of the top spins around a central perpendicular shaft.  The 12 pure colors ride on the spinning edge of the rim,  and the shaft is a vertical gray scale from white to black,  and the described color space inside becomes a sphere - a world of color in light and dark and all of the infinite possibilities of mixtures and potential combinations, comparisons, and contrasts!  

Each color has a distinct value height on the gray scale between light and dark - for example, yellow is on the light end and violet is on the dark end.  And every color can be tinted with white to become lighter, or shaded with black to become darker.  There are infinite possibilities of mixtures of contaminants between pure primary and pure secondary colors.  

There is also a third way to make tertiary colors!  Mix a secondary color with another secondary color.  For example, violet+green, or  orange+green, or  violet+orange.  

Depending on the balance of the mixtures the result of mixing a secondary with a secondary with be earth tones and complex neutrals.  There is a difference between making a neutral from black and white, and making one by mixing colors.  Neutrals made from black and white pigments are flat, but the neutrals made by mixing pigments are spacial.  (In painting it is sometimes interesting to juxtapose the two kinds of neutrals to have one flat on the picture plane and another moving in illusion of space.)

Healthy human eyes and brains are made to perceive trichromatic color - or tristimulus values of red, green, and blue.   So every color has a yellowness, a redness and a blueness - even neutrals, when compared, will expose their gravitation to yellow, red or blue.  This third way of mixing tertiary colors is the final key to the fulfillment of color destiny.  Note that orange and green share a common primary color of yellow,  violet and orange share a common primary color of red,  and  violet and green share a common primary color of blue.  Our brains realize the extra amount of that primary color present,  and the organization of color completes with a return to the primary beginning of yellow, red and blue. 

“The Color Doctor” - Joan Levy Hepburn 2018

The Space of Color Part 5 - Choosing a Palette

This article explores the possibilities in choosing a palette.   In previous articles of this series the relationship between pure color and neutral is defined.  Healthy human eyes perceive the yellow, red and blue qualities in colors.  The most successful palettes are made by limiting the number of the main colors, but finding infinite possibilities in the use of the mixtures of pigments.

The Space of Color has a neutral core - a vertical gray scale from white to black.  The greatest contrast is between solid white and solid black, and both values are flat on the picture plane.  In this case, the “unwanted” contaminant is any black into white or vice versa.  Any deviation from pure white or black creates a value that moves into the sphere of space somewhere on the gray scale.  The illusion of sculpting form in space is created by the use of gray values in contrast to pure black and white.  A luminous sensation is made by surrounding the lightest value with a darker field that establishes the value for contrast.  When gray values are connected progressively a flicker of light or a banding sensation occurs as the eyes perceive their black and white differences.

A monochrome (one color) is made by using one color in a gradation of gray values. 

If two colors are used in a palette, their position on the color wheel is significant.  The mixtures of two colors is described in the previous articles on The Space of Color.

The palette of 3 colors is natural in perception by the tristimulus (red, green, and blue) sensors in healthy human eyes.  Skillful use of the full sphere of color (pure colors, the gray scale, and all of the possible mixtures of both) is essential to create a real physical, emotional, spiritual, and living experience of perception in human consciousness.  There is a difference between using color to “render a picture” of the effects of light versus choosing and arranging colors and values to create a new physical reality with light and color.  

An early color palette arranged by Aristotle incorporated the available pigments with reverence of Nature and spiritual beliefs of the time.  The pigments were limited to the colors that were found in minerals, and they represented the natural elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire.  As time progressed this palette was modified by the use of the gray scale with the addition of white for tinting and black for shading.  

Color palettes and painting methods evolved through changes made by gradual empirical and scientific discoveries.  In 1801 a doctor/physicist named Thomas Young invented the “Theory of Trichromatic Vision”, which stated that the eyes generate all colors by combining 3 wavelengths of red, green and blue in the cone cells.  An English illustrator/botanist named James Sowerby (1757 - 1822) showed JMW Turner that a palette made of the primary colors of Gamboge, Carmine and Prussian Blue would create an integrated painting, because all of those primaries are already contaminated by each other in their original state.

In order for this article to remain concise I will leap ahead.  In 1839 Chevreul, a French textile designer published his book “The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors”, based on his observations of the interaction of colors and values.  The availability of this book coincided with the manufacturing of new pigments made from minerals and dyes, and the Impressionist painters took full advantage of both.  For the first time, artists could transport paint in small lead tubes outside of the studio.  En Plein Air painting was born!  Painters captured their sensations directly onto canvas in full air and light.  Pure colors and mixtures were applied directly without an earth tone ground.  The limited palette was selected to reflect the color and temperature of the light and air, as perceived by tristimulus sensors in the eyes.  

Willem de Kooning’s integrated palettes were chosen by a combination of the color theories of Aristotle and the Impressionists.  His colors were based on the natural elements in his environment - grass, water, sky and flesh!  As he observed his surroundings in the light and air he also used the Impressionist palette, conveying a presence of the material reality in the flavor of the day.  

The de Kooning painting, “Pink Angels” is made from a palette of primary colors, but the yellow, red and blue are unusual.  The yellow is mustard, the red is salmon, and the blue is cobalt violet.  Like JMW Turner,  these primaries all contain elements of each other and are easily integrated.  De Kooning’s studio contained benches (similar to those on a ferry boat for life jacket storage) that he filled with tubes of paint to last a lifetime!  (He said, “You never know how things are going to go when you are a painter, so you better buy paint when you are flush!”)  He made charts of color swatches, and demonstrated self control in using the pigments.  

He described how he chose his palette.  He rode his bike to Louse Point and then sat on the grass and observed the colors of the grass, water, and sky for a long time. Then he rode back to the studio to mix the colors.  He chose the tubes of pigments to make grass, water and sky and then mixed the paint in kitchen bowls in quantities ample for a large canvas.  Then he said, “Now I can use the paint that is in the bowls and also any of the tubes on the table that I used to mix those colors, because they are part of the mixtures!”  

A palette can be invented to convey any concept of organization.  Color lives in a geometric space where personal expression can be mined.  

“The Color Doctor”  -  Joan Levy Hepburn     January 2018

The Space of Color Part 4 - Color is Light

The previous articles on The Space of Color describe color organized by the Munsell color wheel.  This color wheel is used for the mixing of pigments.  It is a tool for rendering color relationships.  For a full comprehension of color it is essential to also know the color wheel of additive and subtractive color.  We see color, because we see light. When you fully understand what you are seeing you will have mastery over using the Munsell color wheel of pigments.

What is RGB and CMYK?  

Newton discovered that white light through a prism is divided into three primary bands of color: RED,  GREEN,  and BLUE.  When light enters healthy human eyes the cone cell sensors distinguish the RED, GREEN, and BLUE bands of the primary colors of white light.  Seeing color is a physical experience, and it must be seen to be believed.  

The term additive color refers to the primary colors of white light.  Red, Green, and Blue are the colors of light that are used when the light is off and needs to be turned on.  Some practical uses for additive color include stage lighting, and tv or computer monitors.  When all additive primary colors of light are equal you see white light.  When the balance of those primaries changes the color of the light changes.  You can draw your own color wheel of light in this way:  place red, green and blue equidistantly on the perimeter of a circle.  Again, you will have a central core of neutral.  Now, just as secondary colors are placed on a Munsell wheel, you will add the mixtures of the primary colors of light.

Red + Blue + Green = White (lights on)   

Red + Green = Yellow

Red + Blue = Magenta

Green + Blue = Cyan

If you subtract one of the bands of additive color you will see a subtractive color, such as yellow, magenta and cyan.  So yellow is actually minus blue light, magenta is minus green light, and cyan is minus red light.

Yellow + Magenta + Cyan = Black (lights out)

Red + Green - Blue = Yellow

Red + Blue - Green = Magenta

Green + Blue - Red = Cyan 

The primary subtractive colors are used when the lights are already on and are then being turned off - or added together to make black.  Think of white paper as “lights on”.  The paper is visible as white, because our eyes see equal amounts of red, green and blue light reflecting from the surface.  When yellow ink is on the paper it blocks the blue light,  magenta ink blocks the green light, and cyan ink blocks the red light.  When all subtractive colors are combined on the paper all of the white light is blocked and we see black.

Notice on your COLOR WHEEL OF LIGHT that any color on the rim is made by the combination of the colors surrounding it - they are the “wanted” colors.

For example,  Red + Green = Yellow,   Yellow + Cyan = Green,   Green + Blue = Cyan,   Cyan + Magenta = Blue,               Blue + Red = Magenta,   Magenta + Yellow = Red

The color directly opposite on the wheel is the “unwanted” color, which will contaminate the pure color and drive it toward neutral - black, white or gray - depending on its location on the gray scale.

Color on a computer monitor is a gamut of Red, Green and Blue mixtures of visible colors of light.  The CMYK (yellow, magenta, cyan and black) mode is used for the purpose of output for printing.  The info window will show you the percentages of the amounts of primary colors in the selected color.  Since every monitor is different you cannot judge color by sliding the color balance bar until it suits your eye.  Only the numbers will represent accurate reading of the color.  

Why do you need to know this information?  This knowledge is essential if you want to be in control of color correction on your computer.  If you  are painting representationally from observation and can identify the color of the source of light, it will make it easier to see the color of light and shadow on local colors.  If you are painting from your mind’s eye you are still painting your observation of the canvas.  This information will inform you to use pigments to create a sensation of real physical light, rather than the “rendering” of a picture of the effects of light.  

The color of light is like the flavor of the day.  You would not want to cook with every spice in the cabinet, nor will you find success in grabbing unrelated colors in multiple palettes.  Remember this ironic mantra: The more you limit the palette the more you will create the sensation of infinite color and light. 

“The Color Doctor” - Joan Levy Hepburn    January 2018