Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

Simply Deceptive: Seeing colors and values with the eye and mind

This month we kick off a new series of articles by award-winning artist / instructor, John Hughes. Hughes has been teaching private plein air workshops each summer and a class on plein air painting at Salt Lake Community College for the past several years. He is a highly sought out instructor and painting demonstrator with a national following. The reason for this monthly column is, as Hughes puts it, “to help the aspiring artist, whether young or old, to get reliable information and learn basic procedures that are often hard to find in contemporary art curriculums.”

You have heard about something being deceptively simple, but how about simply deceptive? That is the topic of today’s discussion. In this case we are speaking of colors and values that are deceptive. And why are they deceptive? The answer lies in the way we perceive information, process it, categorize and understand it, all in the blink of an eye.

For one thing, the mind is slower than the eye in a sense, but the eye takes most of its direction from the mind. In slight of hand card tricks the magician relies on the mind of the viewer to supply wrong information based on past visual experience. In the same way, colors and values can be deceptive because the mind is ready to supply the wrong conclusions based on our past visual memory.

The way it works is that the mind is always making comparisons, whether we are conscious of it or not. These comparisons are made at lightning speed and are a way of dealing with copious amounts of visual information we are being bombarded with all the time. The mind develops a visual shorthand to help us get along in the world. This can be a strength or a weakness, depending on how you look at it.

It’s a strength in that a painting will “read” correctly from across the gallery if the visual relationships of the various forms match the viewer’s past visual experience. An example of this might be how a tree should look in relation to the sky with regard to shape, color, value and edge quality. But it can be a weakness when the mind tries to give an artist a visual shorthand for what they are seeing. When painting a scene the artist must understand color and value relationships unhampered by superfluous ingrained assumptions such as: trees are green, skies are blue, tree trunks are brown, rocks are gray. In reality these colors might need to be something entirely different in order to create a believable visual representation of the scene.

To do this, we as artists must re-think our mental perceptions and replace them with a whole new way of understanding. The study of visual relationships, based on an understanding of how light affects objects in space and how surrounding objects influence each other’s color and temperature is the key. As an example of this principle in nature, let’s use a rock out in the middle of a field on a sunny day. The rock may have a local color (that is, its basic color when not being affected by a strong light, such as the sun) on a gray day. But on a sunny day the rock is going to be strongly lit on one side with warm light, will have cool reflected light from the sky on the other side and will receive warm reflected light from the ground plane on the under side. This coupled with highlights on the sunny side and dark accents on the bottom where light is very low will produce warm and cool relationships that will speak painterly volumes. Now place the rock in a stream and you will have similar effects but must take into account the influence of reflected light from the water’s surface.

The bottom line here is, paint what you see and not what you know, at least not what you knew before you gained this new way of thinking. Remember, everything in the landscape will affect everything else in the landscape to one degree or another. When in doubt isolate a color/value to see and understand it’s deceptive truth. A small piece of neutral card stock with a tiny aperture the size of a pea works well here.

There is no sight without the mind and an artist will always have to rely on both the eye and the brain to create convincing visual representations of the natural world. But the mind that helps us get by in the world without overloading our senses must be retrained when our task becomes to create that world in a convincing and compelling matter on a two-dimensional surface.


John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches at Salt Lake Community College and in private workshops. He is represented by Montgomery Lee Fine Art (Park City), Astoria Fine Art (Jackson Hole), Williams Fine Art (Salt Lake City) and Apple Frame Gallery (Bountiful).

All paintings by John Hughes


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