A Little Essay on Color

A Little Essay on Color by Chuck Bauer ctbauer.com

"In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light." --Hans Hofmann (1880 - 1966)

Hoffman’s statement is witty, but not the whole story. Any discussion of color, much like it's use, requires equal parts discipline and intuition. Let's eat our vegetables first and discuss a disciplined approach. Then we can enjoy our dessert and indulge our intuitions.

Every color has three components: hue, value, and intensity.

Hue appears easy - what's the name of the color? If you are looking at a red car it's obvious, but if you're looking at a grey cat, maybe not so much, but that grey will lean toward a color with a name. (Set blue next to it and you might find it leans orange.)

Value, or relative lightness-darkness, is perhaps the most elemental attribute of any color. Simply imagine a black and white movie. There color is entirely unnecessary, even forgettable. The red car and the grey cat are likely a similar middle value, and in black and white photograph would both appear grey.

Intensity (also known as chroma) refers to the saturation (of pigment), the density, and to some extent the light reflectivity, of the color in question. In our example it's easy to see red is intense, or saturated, while grey is not.

These three attributes of any color, each with its own sliding scale, and its own relative contribution to the whole, once seen, and relentlessly practiced by looking and asking yourself, aid greatly in apprehending any color, for purposes of reproduction, or adjustment.

Now for dessert: An intuitive (another way of saying, “search and find”) approach to color is best managed, ironically, by employing a severely limited palette. Obviously using only, the three primaries plus white is the place to start. In fact, the old masters managed full color paintings of great power using little more than Yellow Ochre, Vermillion or Venetian Red (Cadmium Red today), Black (yes, it’s a Blue), and White.

Just try it and get ready for amazement at how much you can do with how little. From such apparent limitation quickly arises a sense of accomplishment, great confidence, and satisfaction.

Have fun and good luck! September 14, 2021