I’ve written a couple of times about a book that has fascinated me for some time, Margaret Livingstone‘s “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing”. Written by a Harvard neurobiologist, it is a surprisingly approachable explanation of how we’re wired to see and the application of that understanding to art. I’m not a fan of the sciences, but this book’s illustrations go a long way to making a complex subject relatively simple.

When writing about my “drying mantle” the other day, I wrote about how color balance changes based on the amount of available light illuminating the painting. This is backed up by our visual systems biology.
It’s a bit too complex to explain in a short blog post, but this Wikipedia entry on the Luminosity gives a relatively short overview.  The impacts to viewers of your art include the following facts:

  • Our visual system is more responsive to Green and Yellow light than Red, Blue to Violet (see the diagram below–the colors in center are most visible in daylight whereas colors towards the ends less so).  Therefore, if your painting is placed in low light, the green and yellows will hold up, whereas the blues, violets and reds will loose their intensity.
  • Colors also change value based on light.  In low light, reds become darker and blues become lighter.  If for example you were to paint cherries in a blue bowl of the same value (or even a blue darker than the cherries), in low light, the red cherries will look darker.

Of course, in the end, these differences in visual perception are interesting, but ultimately not crucial.  Our intentions as artists, as communicated through design, brush stroke and of course subject matter is much more important.


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