Visual Illusions of Color

Quilting friends and quilt students have often expressed frustrations about color ‘theory’ and how color is analyzed and studied. Usually, we rely on our instinct to combine color, but how do we know that our instinct is correct? And once we are past the basics of color, can we go further by trying to manipulate color to get a special effect?

Color Wheel
An artist can create a visual color effect by knowing how to manipulate color. How that color effect is interpreted is based on well-defined human perception of color. When color was initially studied as a science, basic color circles were developed to show relationships of one color to another. These color circles led to a more scientific, detailed study involving color theory, color harmony, and human perception as related to color interpretation.

Primary Color WheelIn traditional color theory, these are the 3 pigment colors that are unable to be mixed (or formed) by any combination of other colors. This primary color wheel shows the colors: red, yellow, and blue. All other colors are derived from these 3 primary hues.

Secondary Color WheelThe secondary color wheel shows the colors of green, orange and purple. These are the colors formed by mixing the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue.

The 12 color wheel at the top shows is known as a tertiary color wheel. The colors include: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green. These are the colors formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color. Hence the two-word name of the hue (blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange).

In visual experiences, color harmony means that combined colors please the eye. Color harmony can occur with complementary colors or analogous colors. The color harmony that is seen will create an experience for the viewer — that experience is either balanced or chaotic. When colors are not harmonious, the colors are either boring or they are chaotic. At the other extreme is a visual experience that is so overdone or chaotic that the viewer can’t tolerate much. Since human perception and our brains create this phenomenon, we seek color harmony to ensure correct visual interest and a sense of harmonious order.

Beyond the basics of color harmony, color can be visually presented in context with other colors. Doing so creates several distinct modes of appearance. Through these different modes, color can be altered to have an effect on our interpretation of color. Knowing how any one color can be manipulated, an artist can create a visual phenomena, or a visual illusion.

Color Can Have Modes of Appearance:

  • Luster
  • Iridescence
  • Luminosity
  • Transparency
  • Chromatic Light

These salt-dispersed cotton fabrics that I made can show how color can be manipulated into a different mode of appearance.

When salt is added to the wet, dyed cloth, there is a chemical reaction which demonstrates how both a transparency effect and a chromatic light effect creates visual illusions.

This effect is much more interesting and even gives the viewer an illusion of flow and movement.

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