Developing An Eye For Color

photographs and text by Jessica Stammen

For the past few winters, during the weeks that are made of the dark cold days between holiday festivities and mud, I have been lucky enough to join a dozen or so eighth graders at the local middle school for a special class exploring color.

After succeeding at their first challenge to make one color look like two, I give them their second visual riddle: can two different colors be made to look the same? I show an example that is utterly surprising, a rich siena and a very pale ocher look identical when placed on carefully chosen backgrounds that strategically influence the eye. We play with strips of various red hues on different colored backgrounds to see this visual phenomenon in action. No eye, no matter how well trained, is immune to the effects of simultaneous contrast, also known as the subtraction of color. The study of color is very democratic in this way!

Below are  three of the works done to solve this challenge.  The first image of each sequence shows the two foreground squares appearing to be the same color.  The the second image then reveals that the left foreground square corresponds to and is the same color as the upper right-hand rectangle, and vice versa.  Max, Sarah and Brynn did some wonderfully surprising work, don’t you think?

The third image in each sequence was just for fun.  After teaching this color class for a few years I realize that my small, 6×6 inch paintings have taken on a similar format of center square in context.