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What you see may not be what you get.

Color perception varies greatly between viewers due to light conditions, angles of viewing at different times, degree of color blindness and, to a certain extent, what the viewer expects or wants to see. Dictionaries can define a particular color only by equating it with a well know object, i.e., red is the color of a cherry, yellow is the color of a lemon, etc. They sometimes define a color as being between two other colors on the light spectrum, which can be a somewhat vague definition for a youngster.

The study of physics, of course, teaches a student what color is and why it exists, but the art student must understand how to present color to create the image he or she desires to be perceived. Color relationships are an integral part of art because color defines shapes, whereas hues, tints, shades and chroma define the mood.

The student should be trained to analyze color so that it becomes second nature during the creative process, and the earlier the better. It is the teacher's responsibility, I believe, to impress upon the student that all people probably perceive colors differently. The red on a Campbell's Soup can is fairly standard all over the country and readily recalled from memory. However, ask a class to pick that red from memory, choosing from samples of various red paper and the individual selections will vary. Exercises should be developed to enable the student to analyze what is actually in a color. The following steps might be helpful in raising the color perception level of a serious art student.

1. Set three bowls of water--hot, lukewarm and cold--before the class. Have students put their left hands in the hot water and right hands in the cold water. Then have them put both hands in the lukewarm water. Their perception of temperature will be reversed: left will feel cold, right will feel warm. This will illustrate that perception is not always tree to fact, because obviously the lukewarm water does not have two separate temperatures.

2. The students should view a solid color object under various light conditions and then write down their descriptions of the color, such as the ball is bright orange; it looks yellower in sunlight; it is closer to yellow than to red; it's shiny, but not metallic looking; it's uneven, or whitish, or pastel; whatever. Alter the students compare notes, point out not only differences in descriptions, but any actual contradictions.

3. Repeat the process with an object whose coloring is mottled, striated or has numerous shades. Ask questions like, "Does the green in the dying leaf show signs of red or yellow? Are the veins darker because they look brown? Does the green in the carpet look bluish, or does it look lime colored because it contains a little yellow?" In other words, show how a green item has more colors in it than just green.

4. Apply this same process to things having more complex coloring such as the sky, distant mountains or trees, the ocean or lake, or even animals or birds.

5. Finally, show the class a solid color object to be painted. Each student should list the colors and amounts needed to mix and produce the same color as the object being painted. Again they should compare notes.

These exercises will illustrate the complexity of presenting color the way the artist wants it to be perceived. The artist should control the viewer's mood and this can be accomplished through the understanding of color perception.

Don Holm is an art educator living in Bainbridge Island, WA.
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Title Annotation:perception of color
Author:Holm, Don
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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