DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Urb Ab

Filed under: Photography: Structure — Tags: , , , — fred @ 23:43

Angular Composition, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

In drawing and painting I’m a realist, but in photography I lean towards abstraction.  I’m always looking for patterns that, put in a frame, become abstract paintings or sculptures.  It’s about striking patterns in shape, light, texture, or color, unusual simplicity or complexity, striking juxtapositions, or pictorial elements such as linearity or dynamic asymmetry occurring in the real world.  I have no need to go anywhere exotic to find such pictures.  They are everywhere around me in the busy city, and I only need the eye to spot them and a camera to collect them.  Here I’ll share a selection of finds, all photographed in the calendar year 2012 in New York City.

Collision of Architectures, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

The details of old buildings are, of course, deliberate sculpture, but they can look different framed in context or removed from context and scale.

Architectural Ornament, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Spring at the Museum, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

The structures of classical architecture stand in harmonious relation to biological nature.  Modern architecture is more concerned with physics: light and space.

Passageway, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Tile Counter, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Light is the magic ingredient of architecture, the special sauce that turns the most solid material and form into protean imagery.

Aluminum Panels, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Urban E, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Things that are more or less fixed exist in constant relation to things that are always changing.

Curtain, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Fence Holes, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

It is the negative space, the holes in things and the gaps between things, that give form and meaning to matter.

Flagpole, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Glancing Light, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

People design things, but the ideas of the mind have a certain rigidity.  Chaos adds its wildness, and brings them to life.

Lines Against the Sky, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

BS, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Even light that is built rarely remains under tight control.

Water Wall, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Architectural Office, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Look behind any surface and see further layers.

Diagonal Grid, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Bright and Dark, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Mercury cycles quickly, and Saturn cycles slowly.  The world is cycles upon cycles upon cycles, all possible wavelengths combined.

Fountain, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Rusted Chair, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Time makes a simple metal chair into a fractal forest.

The row of pinstriped buildings below seems at first glance a procession of uniform monoliths, but closer inspection shows that no  lines align perfectly.  This row is crooked like “yaeba” teeth.

Avenue of the Americas, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Orange and Green, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Gratings in Headlights, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Light and color make the dullest things dynamic, when you look at the light and color rather than at the things.

Service Station, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Six Eighty One, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Contrasting qualities, rectilinear and organic, luminous and shadowy, exist in mutual distinction.

Sharp and Soft, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

“21”, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Complexity emerges.  Simplicity distills.

Iron Bench, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Luminous Gap, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt


The Doodle Abides

Nature Boy, 2012, by Fred Hatt

I drew this this morning after a session of Authentic Movement.  It’s a kind of moving meditation, a group practice of discovering the impulses to movement within your body, following them wherever they lead you, and responding in the moment.  The practice called Authentic Movement was developed in the 1950’s by Mary Starks Whitehouse, a student of choreographers Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, and developed in later decades by Janet Adler, Joan Chodorow, and others.  My friend Peter Honchaurk, who studied the form with Adler,  introduced me to it twenty years ago, and ever since then it’s been one of my essential practices.  Nowadays I’m part of a peer group of Authentic Movers, and we meet once a month in Prospect Park in Brooklyn to move and witness together.  Many people treat the practice as a form of somatic therapy, but for me it’s always been most essentially a way to stay in touch with the creative spirit that resides in the body and in the relationship between the inner world and the world outside.

The drawing above is an expression of the connection with elemental energies that I felt moving in the park.  The remainder of the pictures in this post will consist of a collection of my doodles, most of which are done while at work, riding transportation, or talking on the phone, not in connection with Authentic Movement practice.  Illustrations are in random order, so the relation of text to images is mostly coincidental.  (Earlier posts on the art of doodling are here and here.)

Score for Solo Dance, 2011, by Fred Hatt

In Authentic Movement we usually move with eyes closed.  For a person like me, extremely visually oriented and, if not quite intellectual, at least mental, consciousness tends to reside mainly in the head, with the body serving as the vehicle to move the head around in the world.  When the eyes are closed, awareness naturally shifts downward into the body.  Eyes-closed orientation relies not on visual cues, but on contact with the ground or floor.   Proprioception and tactility supplant visual/intentional navigation.

Analysis, 2011. by Fred Hatt

If you’ve followed this blog for a while you may have gleaned a central theme, that I treat visual art as an art of movement, like music or dance.

Curandero, 2011, by Fred Hatt

All organic forms, the bodies of plants, animals, and people, the shapes of clouds and of the land, emerge from dynamic processes of movement and growth.

Generative S;iral, 2012, by Fred Hatt

To draw is to feel form back into the movement from which it arises.

Forest Runner, 2011, by Fred Hatt

You can get to know a landscape by roaming about it, feeling its texture with the soles of your feet and its contours as gravity reveals them to you.

Floor Plan for a Happy Drunk, 2012, by Fred Hatt

A blank piece of paper is a fairly homogenous landscape, so roaming about it with a brush or pen or pencil is an exploration of the hills and valleys of your mind more than of the paper.

Cogitation/Constipation, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Authentic Movement takes place within a space defined by the “witnesses” who observe the “movers”, and with their attention create a protected circle where the magic can happen.  A doodle happens in a space defined by the edges of the paper provided for it.

Mountain Mouth, 2012, by Fred Hatt

The doodle grows into the two-dimensional space of the paper as a growing houseplant expands within the space contained by its pot.

Bacterium, 2011, by Fred Hatt

If you’re dancing in a space, of course you can keep going back and forth over the same little patch.  When you’re making marks, you have to keep moving into territory that hasn’t been marked yet, as a plant’s roots must penetrate the as-yet unoccupied dirt.

Wreckage, 2011, by Fred Hatt

In movement or in drawing or doodling, you are always responsive to sensory input.  Marks or gestures may arise from internal impulses of nerves or emotions or imagination, or they may come from hearing a bird or feeling the wind.

French Curves, 2012, by Fred Hatt

This approach eschews concepts and plans.  There is no preconceived idea one is trying to portray.  There is simply a flow of moments, shapes that flow into other shapes, images and impulses arising in the mind, in the body, or in the world.

Treasure Map, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Of course, shapes are seen as things, and the imagination picks up images and runs with them, so free improvisatory doodling or moving is not necessarily strictly nonobjective, but I try to keep representational elements ambiguous, so that I retain the freedom to reinterpret them.

Old King Lear, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Most of these doodles are made without any particular idea in mind, but once they’re done it is much easier to come up with descriptive titles than it is for my figurative drawings.  There is nothing like mindless abstract movement to inspire the imagination!

Stiff Salute, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Organic movement is all about curves and spirals, meanders and branches, echoes and fractals.

Fleurs du Mal, 2012, by Fred Hatt

How does electricity move?  How does blood flow?

Tesla, 2012, by Fred Hatt

How do a flower’s petals unfold?  How do a tree’s limbs reach out and out, penetrating a space of air?

Pagoda of the Hairy Eyeball, 2011, by Fred Hatt

How do you slip on the ice?  How does water carve a canyon?

Man on Wire, 2011, by Fred Hatt

How does the wind wriggle through a gap?  How does a weed expand a crack in concrete?

Bird Lizard Blizzard, 2011, by Fred Hatt

How do dividing cells accrete into a spine?  How does heat make light ripple in air?

Water Cycle, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Why do arteries look like trees?  Why do trees look like lightning?  Why does a river delta look like a tree?

Jazz Hands, 2012, by Fred Hatt

Why does the large scale structure of the universe look like neurons?

The Devil Toupée, 2012, by Fred Hatt

I want the movement of the hand to reflect the natural movement of  growing things.

Writhing T-square, 2012, by Fred Hatt

I want the movement of the hand to reflect the movement of the mind.

Cul-de-Sac Subdivision, 2012, by Fred Hatt

I want a drawing to grow like a plant grows.

Indomitable Weed, 2012, by Fred Hatt

I want random things to come into the drawing just as random things enter into any experience, any environment in the world.

Museum of Maladaptive Mutations, 2012, by Fred Hatt

I want to create not by fiat, but by adaptation.

Shaft, 2012, by Fred Hatt

The movement of the mind does not stand apart from the world.  Like the movement of the body, it happens only within a world that has forces and pressures and countercurrents and resistance.  To make is to engage.

Thorny Vessels and Tricky Steps, 2012, by Fred Hatt


Mother Nature, Abstract Expressionist: Photography by Dan Fen

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

One of the gifts I received this holiday season was a collection of hundreds (thousands, actually!) of digital photographs by my youngest brother, Dan.  Dan lives in the Mojave Desert area, and regularly goes hiking in the canyons, hills, and valleys of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California, with his partner Jill, their dogs, and his camera.  All of the photos seen here were taken within 90 minutes drive from his house.  Dan has a great eye for the abstract patterns of nature.  I’m devoting this last post of 2011 to sharing Dan’s vision with the readers of Drawing Life.  The vortex of color below is a close-up detail of a living tree.

Votr, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Dan rarely prints his photos, and prefers that they be viewed as digital slide shows, full screen on a large monitor in a dark room, as sequences.  The more abstract series are quite hypnotic seen in that way, and I hope Dan will soon put some of his photos on line for full-screen slide show viewing.  For the format of this blog, I’ve selected a few of my favorites, reduced them in size, and mixed them up.  (Apologies, Dan!)  The originals have extremely fine textural details that are lost in the smaller images here, but the smaller size seems to emphasize the compositional qualities of the images.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Some of these close-up studies of rocks, trees and metal remind me of some of the images of the planet Mars that we have seen recently from the HiRISE camera launched by NASA and the University of Arizona.

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

You can also look at these pictures as though they were abstract expressionist paintings.  To my eye, the subtlety of the colors and the variety and complexity of the patterns surpass the masters of the New York School.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

The desert mountains and canyons are famous for their grand vistas, but Dan looks closely at details one might easily overlook, seeing the beauty of all phases of the cycles of nature, including erosion and decay.

Tree, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

These markings remind me of petroglyphs.  This is another close textural examination of a tree.

Noba, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

The landscape in Dan’s area is arid and much of it is dominated by bare stone.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t wildly colorful.  Look at these rocks streaked in white and red.

Buffington Pockets, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

In the picture below, the sun shines through the grass from behind, making the clumps shine like Fourth of July sparklers all around the jagged branches of a dead tree.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

This is another detail of the tree seen in the second picture in this post.  I wonder how it gets all these colors!

Votr, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

The landscape in wet places tends to have a lot of soft shapes and vivid greens.  The landscape in the desert leans more towards the spiky and the reddish.

Buffington Pockets, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Time is an artist!

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Sometimes the long view is just as much an abstract pattern as the close view.

Spring Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Organic growth, the cycles of the seasons, and the ravages of time all go into creating these expressions of vitality and struggle.  Dan’s art is to find and isolate them, and to share them with those who can’t be there, or wouldn’t notice these details if they were.

Cluptr, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Who says death is not a creative force?

Buffington Pockets, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Growth and destruction, all of it is part of the eternal process of change, and it all coexists as layers settle upon layers and surfaces scratch and peel.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Noba, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

No architect’s dream of clean lines and noble geometry can compare to the fractal magic of living chaos!

Spring Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Thanks, Dan, for sharing your photos with me and for allowing me to share them with my readers.


Abstraction by Shadows

Filed under: Photography: Light — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 00:12

Texture in Gray and Tan, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

I don’t usually think of my urban landscape photos as Fine Art Photography.  They’re just visual impressions, casually collected by technological means.  Unless it’s a job, I rarely go out specifically to make photographs.  If I’m going to the kind of event I think will attract a lot of shutterbugs, I’ll deliberately leave my camera at home.  But when I’m going about my business around town, provided I’m not too rushed or carrying too much other stuff, I often carry a camera with me.  Looking for pictures in the world around me is an exercise in seeing the world abstractly.  I like patterns and geometry, randomness (chaos) and design (order), elemental and optical phenomena.

Sometimes the patterns of shadows and light, when framed in the viewfinder, look like abstract expressionist paintings, especially when organic scatterings come together with rectilinear structures, as in the above image of mottled tree shadows falling across subtle bands of colored stucco and concrete.  In the picture below, the mottled pattern is light reflected from the windows of another building, a towering projection of fire in the middle of a monolithic shadow.

Light Within Shadow, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

Decorative ironwork makes the stark necessity of security an occasion for creative design, and the visual layering of the black iron and the dark shadows in afternoon sunlight make a complex tessellation.

Cracquelure, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

At night, multiple light sources, of different colors, come from different directions, creating subtle patterns.

Stair Shadows, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

Here, the sun shines through windows of beveled glass onto a tile floor perhaps inspired by Piet Mondrian.

Sunlight Through Leaded Glass, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

A geometrical arrangement in red, beige, and dark gray frames an adumbral totem of modernity.

Cobra, 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

Another signpost is the figure on a ground of stippled gold and teal.

Park and Adelphi, 2005, photo by Fred Hatt

In a shadowy corridor, a beam of light shining through a skylight gives this brass number a soft aura.

Three, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

In early morning sunlight, shadows and reflections from chrome architectural fixtures play like wild luminous graffiti across this stodgy corporate structure.

Plaza, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

I think of this one as a study in polyrhythms, as the different repeating intervals of light and dark, thick and thin, angled and perpendicular, come together.

Interval Variations, 2005, photo by Fred Hatt

This composition of perspective and piebald is held together by the patch of bright orange netting in the corner.

Under a Scaffold, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

Here, shadows of trees cast directly by the sun overlap shadows cast by the sun bouncing off of greenish glass, a vision worthy of a great abstract colorist like Joan Mitchell.

Shadows in Green and Gray, 2009, photo by Fred Hatt

Two lamps cast cones of light like sentries guarding this Romanesque arch.

Lamps and Arch, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

This porch light in the late day sun projects a robotic face on the wall.

Daytime Nightlight, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

Someone tried to relieve the ennui-producing rigidity of this building façade by putting the vinyl siding on at a 45 degree angle, but the venous shadows of bare trees are what finally do the trick.

Winter Composition, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

Don’t rectangles and organic branching patterns complement each other wonderfully?

Storefront, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

In this nighttime shot, the shadow of a cluster of signs and the crosswalk markings add their jagged geometry to a well-worn street corner.

Bold Stripes, 2008, photo by Fred Hatt

On this wall beneath an iron grating, two white lights and one yellow one create a network of stripes over the masonry.

White and Yellow Light, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

Light reflecting from (I think)  a bowl of water in the sun throws this ghost on an old tin ceiling, with a bit of a rainbow forming about the lower left edge.

Refractive Projection, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

The cable installers never seem much concerned about neatness, and the angled sun turns their tangle into an art brut scrawl.

Coaxial Cluster, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

The columns in this neoclassical temple are cast concrete, but sunlight and bare trees give them the veined patterns of Carrara marble.

Fluted Columns, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

Here the crepuscular rays of a car’s headlights cross the sidewalk slabs from one angle, while the elongated shadow of a bicycle, cast by a sodium-vapor streetlight, cross at another angle.

Crossing Light and Dark, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

Here the shadows of decorative ironwork dance across the treads and risers of a New York brownstone stoop.

Filigreed Steps, 2008, photo by Fred Hatt

White stripes, orange splotches, dark windows, a looming presence.

Night House, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

A tree’s narrow leaves make the shadows on this security gate, but it looks like the work of a berserk calligrapher.  The sky blue and pink paint on the wall are the colors of baby announcements, but what kind of world are they being born into?

Shadow Gate, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

The shadow of an ornate carved wooden cross at a Lithuanian church breaks as it falls across a stepped wall.

Segmented Cross, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

When multiple light sources of different colors cast shadows of a single object, the colors neutralize in the bright areas but intensify in the shadows, especially where light of only one color falls.

Tinted Lines, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

The city is designed and constructed of plane surfaces, but without the organic forms of trees and people in motion, it would be nothing.

Sidewalk Shadows, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt



The Full Gamut

Filed under: Collections of Images,Color — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 00:07

Munsell principal and intermediate hues, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

I am a person of serial obsessions.  Every few years I feel compelled to learn everything I can about some topic, usually something esoteric or scientific.  Around 2003-2005, my obsession was color:  the science of light and spectra, the biology and psychology of color perception, the technology of color reproduction, ways of naming colors and dividing color space, and philosophical ideas about color.  When I had the idea of writing a blog post about color, I started looking through my notes and collections of digital images, making a list of interesting things I’d learned.  There was enough there for a book or a semester course!  Perhaps in the future there will be more posts on color.  For now, I’ve selected a few interesting or lovely images from my collection, and here present them with interesting related factoids.  Even if you don’t share my hunger for knowledge about color, I hope you’ll appreciate the beauty of these diagrams.

I’m titling this post “The Full Gamut” – we’ve all heard that phrase meaning the complete range of something that has varieties.  The word gamut originally meant a range of musical notes.  It’s used in color science to indicate the limited range of colors that can be described or reproduced given a certain technological context.  A computer monitor, for example, can simulate many colors by combining various intensities of red, green, and blue “primary” colors.  The surface colors of most naturally occurring objects can be reproduced, but there remain many colors outside the gamut of the monitor.  You can see pure spectral colors by looking at the reflections on a CD or DVD.  The colors in the image at the top of this post approach the limits of saturation achievable on a monitor, but compared to pure spectral colors they’re surprisingly dull.  Even Newton’s prismatic spectrum does not contain the full range of vivid colors – magentas and purples cannot be represented by single wavelengths, but only exist as the blending of the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Color is a three-dimensional phenomenon.  Every model for describing colors requires three variables: three primaries, or three polarities.  For a general understanding of color independent of any particular medium or technology, the clearest dimensions are hue, value (lightness or luminance), and chroma (saturation or intensity).  Albert Munsell’s model of color space is one of the most illuminating systems, based on rigorous study of human color perceptions rather than on physical or technological variables.  In Munsell’s system, value is the vertical dimension, hue is the angular dimension, and chroma is shown as the distance from the center.  The resulting arrangement of colors is called a color solid, or a color tree.

The Munsell colors are produced in rigorously accurate sets as books and charts to be used to describe colors by visual reference to standard samples.  They come very close to representing the full range (gamut) of colors that can exist in the form of physical objects.

Munsell Color Tree, illustration by limaorian@hotmail.com

The “color wheel” most people are taught in basic art classes is a rigid and simplistic model compared to Munsell’s color solid.  The color wheel doesn’t account for the fact that different hues have different ranges of chroma or intensity, and that some hues (e.g. yellow) achieve their highest chroma at high values, while other colors (e.g. bluish purple) are more intense at a darker value.  Munsell’s system defines the hues by letters and numbers, starting with five fundamental hues (red, yellow, green, blue, and purple), and five secondary or intermediate hues (yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue, and red-purple).  The diagram below shows five cross-sections of the Munsell color solid, with the principal hues on the right and the complementary intermediate hues on the left.

Five cross sections of Munsell Color Solid, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Here are the most saturated colors around the perimeter of the Munsell Solid.  Here, the hue circle is repeated twice along the horizontal axis with the values arranged on the vertical axis.

Munsell hues at maximum chroma, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

If we consider the color solid as a kind of globe, with the neutral grays as the axis, we can look at the irregular shape from a point of view centered above the north (white) pole or the south (black) pole.  The colors with maximum chroma are at the outer bound of these polar views, whether they are on the “equator” (middle value perimeter) or not.  Please note that the gamut of the computer monitor is considerably smaller than the gamut of the physical samples included in the Munsell standard, so the colors closer to the outside edge of the figures below are not really accurate.  You can see that the colors yellow and green achieve high chroma at the higher values, while deep blues and purples are most intense at low values.

Light and dark hemispheres of the Munsell color solid, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Some of the transitions between adjacent colors in the illustration above may seem abrupt, but that’s because of variations in the maximum achievable value or chroma.  If we look at the full range of hues at a uniform value and chroma level, as in the circle below, the transitions are very smooth.

40 Munsell hues at value 7, chroma 8, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

This circle is at value 7 and chroma 8, the maximum chroma level achievable all the way around the hue circle at any value in the Munsell solid.  We probably all learned in school that Newton proved that light is a waveform, and that different colors are different wavelengths of light.  The diagram below charts the level at which the Munsell samples, at the same chroma and value seen in the above illustration, reflect various wavelengths of the spectrum.  The horizontal axis goes from short wavelengths (violet blue) at the left, to long wavelengths (red) at the right.  You will notice that even these samples, which appear quite vividly colored, are all reflecting almost half the spectrum at over half their average reflectivity.  These colors are not “pure”, but they do look intense!

Spectral reflection curves for five principal Munsell hues at value 7, chroma 8, illustration from article by A. Kimball Romney and Tarow Indow

Munsell’s model arranges colors by measures of equal perceptual distance, but what does that have to do with how we learn to identify and name colors?  One of the most cited academic papers of all time is Berlin and Kay’s cross-cultural survey of color names.  Berlin and Kay used a study of color terms to address the question of linguistic relativity, that is, whether linguistic categories define perceptions, or vice versa.  They used the highest-chroma Munsell samples of colors at the full range of hues and values, asking participants of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds to choose the “best examples” of their basic color words, and the range these words would cover.  The “best examples” were called “focal colors”.  In the diagram below, the focal colors are marked as chosen by speakers of American English.

American English focal colors in a Munsell grid, based on data from Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, 1969, by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Berlin and Kay found a high degree of uniformity in the specific colors chosen as focal colors between speakers of different languages.  They also found evidence that color terms evolve in a given language in a predictable order.  First, a distinction is made between dark/cool and light/warm.  Red is the first individual color to be given a name.  Next, green or yellow are distinguished, followed by blue.  More complex languages separate brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray.  Berlin and Kay’s findings have been challenged and reproduced by many subsequent researchers, using the same Munsell grid.  The chart below shows interesting variations on how the color range can be divided, with eight divisions in English and five in a language called Berinmo.

Distribution of English and Berinmo color names, illustration from the article "Colour categories in a stone-age tribe", by Jules Davidoff, Ian Davies and Debi Roberson, Nature 398, 1999

Below are pretty close representations of the “focal colors” chosen by English speakers.  There are eleven basic color terms in English, the eight easily identifiable ones shown below, plus black, gray, and white.  Chosen samples of focal colors would be very similar for nearly every language in the industrial world.  Why are these colors seen as basic?  They are not evenly distributed on the grid of colors, and no one, as far as I know, has been able to show any fundamental relation between these specific colors and any measurable aspect of color vision or color physics.

Focal colors, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

You’ll notice that people make finer distinctions in the colors around the red/yellow portion of the range.  Human skin color and the colors of most animals are in this area, so perhaps we are more attuned to fine differences there than we are in the blue and green areas associated with the landscape.

Randall Munroe, author of the classic geek webcomic XKCD, conducted an online color-naming experiment, with a random color generator that asks random web participants to name the colors they see.  His report on the results of the survey is hilarious as well as interesting.  Here’s his map of how thousands of participants intuitively divided up the color space.

Dominant color names mapped to RGB cube, illustration from XKCD Color Survey Results, from Randall Munroe's XKCD blog

Color naming experiments are usually done by showing subjects one color at a time.  When the colors are shown together, as in the chart above, or in the Munsell grid illustrating the Berlin and Kay survey, we notice the arbitrariness of the lines we draw to distinguish colors.

Color perception is a relativistic phenomenon.  The book Interaction of Color, by the painter and teacher Josef Albers, shows by example how colors are seen differently according to their surroundings.  In the illustration below, the double-x line looks very different depending on its background, but where the line joins we can see its continutiy.

Illustration from Interaction of Color, 1975, by Josef Albers

As an artist, I find it most useful to look at colors as polarities tending one way or another.  Many real-life colors are very muted and subtle, but if you can look at a shadow and see, for example, that it has a bluer tone compared to the adjacent highlight’s yellower tone, you can begin to capture those subtleties.

In photography, it is common to analyze and correct colors using such polarities.  The most important one is the color temperature axis, what most painters would describe as the warm/cool distinction.  In the study of light, it was observed that the temperature of any incandescent substance, such as a heated piece of metal, could be determined by the color of its glow.  White hot is hotter than red hot, and blue hot is hotter still.  Color temperature is a scientifically defined scale for describing the color of light on a red/orange/white/blue scale.  Typical incandescent lights glow at 2500-3200 degrees kelvin, while daylight is 5000-7500 degrees.  The temperature-color correspondence is exactly the opposite of what is taught to artists as warm and cool colors.

Color temperature illustration, from a webpage by W. A. Steer, PhD

Of course, fluorescent lights, neon lights, high-intensity discharge lamps, LEDs, and other non-incandescent sources aren’t defined by the color-temperature scale, so correcting colors from those lights involves a second scale, which photographers call “tint” or “plus green” and “minus green”.  Minus green is magenta or pink.  A minus green filter, for example, can overcome the tendency of fluorescent lights to photograph as greenish.  These two axes, orange-blue and green-magenta, are used in filtering for lenses or light sources while shooting, and in digital post-processing of photographs and video recordings.

In figurative art, I’m always looking at the variations in flesh tones.  I find it useful to look at these very subtle differences as tendencies along axes of complementary colors:  orange/blue, magenta/green, red/green blue, yellow/deep blue.

Eight part color arrangement, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Some of the illustrations in this post are my own, and others are found on the web.  Clicking on found images links to the site where I found them. For the Munsell colors used in some of the digital illustrations I am indebted to Wallkill Color for their Munsell Conversion Software.

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