Boring Brown

I’m presently doing a portrait of my daughter’s significant other. When I say I’m “presently” doing it means that I haven’t finished it yet and it is propped in my studio so I can look at it periodically. It is not on my easel and I am not working on it regularly. Sebastian is shown sitting in a dark room in Italy, a few hundred years ago. The room is very dark with likely dark brown walls, but if I paint the walls dark brown it just doesn’t look right.

It looks more realistic if I add some colour to the dark areas. I’m working from imagination here but it definitely looks better with some colours added in. I think when we are actually in a room with some very dark corners our eyes can’t cope with the low contrast and as a result our visual system makes up extraneous colours probably from lighter areas of the image, or perhaps a window. I bet our art would be pretty fantastic if we had a visual system like a Mantis Shrimp.

I’m convinced that the actual colour in these dark corners would be in the dark brown to black range, but in the absence of colour or other visual information our brain creates it. Like it does if we stare at a colour for a while then look away. We still see colour but it’s usually the opposite colour that we were looking at. I’m sure a researcher involved with vision and colour would have a more detailed explanation. Our visual system seems to take a set and then when our vision is rebounding from that image, we see the opposite colour for a while.

I think this adds to what I call the reality illusion, the problem is, how do I replicate that in a painting. Contrast in a painting is far less (I suspect by at least several orders of magnitude) than reality. If I add small amounts of colour to the dark areas, we interpret it as our visual system playing tricks and it seems to add to our perception of how much contrast we are seeing. Technically it may be bringing other photo receptors in our visual system into play. Or at least fooling our brains that those receptors are being used, which may enhance the illusion that we are looking at reality.

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