Part 2. Assignment 2: Still life in colour

My Aims

For this assignment I wanted to explore colour further as I have spent a huge amount of time trying to understand what it is about colour that I don’t understand! I chose to do a very simple still life arrangement, just an apple on a table to explore different concepts of what colour is and our visual representation of colour in art.

Scientific concept of representing colour in art.

Scientifically, colour is perceived by the viewer as the wave-lengths of white light that are not absorbed by an object. Those wavelengths are scattered by the object, and are reflected back into our eye where different cone receptors are stimulated to give us a psychological sense of colour. An artist creating a ‘colour-accurate’ painting of an object would then mix that perceived colour using physical pigments and create a daub of paint based on the reflected light they had perceived. I use the word ‘psychological’ here because whilst there is a physical effect of light scattering happening, and a physiological effect of cones being stimulated, it is the brain that ultimately registers the colour for the viewer i.e. yellow is perceived if red-cones and ‘green’ cones are stimulated together in the absence of blue. If an object is viewed in total darkness, there is no light to be scattered, our cones are not stimulated and so the object appears black. This has opened up a great debate in our house amongst my kids (aged 14, 12 and 9) as to whether an object in the dark is still coloured!

An alternative concept of representing colour in art?

The scientific explanation of colour is the one that I have grown up with and accept as a scientist. We have no way of really appreciating if everyones response to a colour stimulus is the same (i.e do we all see ‘red’ as the same? ), however this doesn’t alter the optical physics of how colour is produced.

As an artist, I stated to wonder if there was in fact an alternative way of thinking about the colour representation. If some light energy is absorbed by an object then perhaps the colour of an object could in fact be represented by those absorbed wavelengths of colour, rather than the wave lengths that are reflected. In this case the colour is a result of the energy given to the object by white light. This concept does not allow us to visualise the colour in the same way, after all our cones will not be stimulated by those absorbed wave-lengths of light. However an artist may represent this idea of ‘absorbed colour’ by painting with pigments representing wavelengths not perceived by the eye. Of course as soon as those pigments are put on paper you are back to representing colour through our traditional ‘psychological’ concept of colour, creating a weird circular argument about the colour of objects and how we perceive them. Nevertheless it is this concept of perception and representation of colour that I wanted to explore further.

I don’t for one minute think that I am the first person to question colour in this manner, however I have not managed to find artists that have used these ideas to represent objects through painting….quite possibly because it makes your head hurt trying to sort your way through it!

The Process

First attempt (wrong)

I stated playing with ideas in my sketchbook, using watercolour paints (close to hand at the time) putting down ideas of traditional and alternative concepts of colour and what this would do to the visual representation of an apple. I started with green and red pigments representing the apple as I ‘saw’ it. I then moved on to put down pigments of the colours not reflected back, so green and blue where I saw red, red and blue where I saw green. I even went on to represent the apple through the colour mixing (of light) of those colours. I just thought I had an interesting project to work on when I realised that I had got so engrossed with colour mixing theory that I had forgotten that I wasn’t just considering red, blue and green, rather I needed to consider the all the colours in the spectrum of white light! I thus needed to start again, but include my sketchbook work here for completeness. I had got as far as translating some of my ideas into acrylic paint before I realised my mistake.


Second attempt

Realising I needed to use the full spectrum of white light colours, I chose a palette of rainbow acrylics (cadmium red, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, sap green, ultramarine blue and purple) along with titanium white.  I completed some colour studies of my apple, firstly using colours as I ‘saw’ them and secondly as colours absorbed by the apple. This second sketch was done by layering over the colours absorbed by the apple.

Investigating representation of colour

Provided I could get the tones and form right, I did not see any problems with representing the colour of an apple as we see it. Creating an apple as the colour absorbed was a different matter and threw up all sorts of problems, which I try to present with my solutions here:

  • Highlights: these will still be white as no light is absorbed, it is all reflected back (additive mixing creates white light)
  • Shadows: No light is absorbed in these areas as light doesn’t reach them and so shadows will still be black
  • Additive versus subtractive colour mixing: This is a big conundrum. If I am representing objects as the colours that are absorbed I am layering different colour pigments on top of each other. However the hue tending towards black is a result of subtractive mixing of pigments. With light this hue would be tending towards white! I decided that this conundrum was in fact part of the appeal of this investigation and given that I can not represent light mixing with physical mixing of pigments, I let the resulting image stand as an abstract colouration of an apple.
  • Composition: I need to put my apple into the context of a background. I decided on a very simple, close up arrangement of apple on table.
  • In the creation of the abstract apple, I realised that the resulting colour would depend on the order that the acrylic glazes were laid down as some were more transparent than other. I carried out a transparency test over a black line to sort out an order of more opaque colours being laid down first.
  • Form in the abstract apple. This may be an issue as areas became more uniform towards black in colour resulting in a flattening effect of the image. The transparency test above allowed me to identify to hues (red and blue) that could be laid down in more opaque layers to help me create darker darks to represent form.

I completed a couple of quick painting investigations to get an idea of composition. I chose a square format partly because this format had been very successful in the previous exercise and partly because I intentionally was only depicting one apple. I have used a blue wash for the air around the apple deliberately as the atmosphere scatters blue light. I kept my brush strokes very loose here and tried to recreate some of the fuzzy edge effect that my sketchbook work had. I had to change apples in the middle of this (the original got eaten). The second apple was much rounder and I had to fight hard to prevent it becoming a ball with a stick out the top. I quite like the halo effect of the brush-strokes,  in the second study they are perhaps too ‘arty’ but in the first study they create an energy and allow the space occupied by the apple to extend into the space around it. In both examples the shadow is quite heavy, however in the first study the colours are quite sympathetic there is evidence of the red and blue in shadow, which allows the apple to belong. This is not so evident in the second apple here.

To progress onto the final pieces I decided to remove the cloth to reveal the darker table surface underneath so that there would not be such a contrast between the shadows and the table surface.


Finally for my assignment I completed a set of three paintings:

  1. an apple represented with the traditional concept of colour representation
  2. an apple represented by an abstract notion of colour absorption
  3. an apple painted in the dark.

The final pieces


An apple in the dark, acrylic on paper


On the paintings

Compositionally the paintings are deliberately quite boring. For me this was an investigation into different ideas of representing colour and a simple composition suited this. There is a feeling of airiness about the first two apples, but I have lost the energy that was present in the two studies. the first of these assignment pieces is too ‘tidy’- a response I think to me worrying about my brushstrokes in the studies being too arty!

As a finished painting it is the absorbed colour apple that works the best. By changing the colour of the table, I removed the problem of the stark contrast between it and the shadows but I created a certain amount of disharmony between the first realistic apple and the table. However with the second, absorbed colour apple, the tones of the darker table work much better with the colours of the apple itself. The shadows are much more in keeping with the idea of belonging to the apple itself. Of course what I haven’t done in this exercise is paint the table in its absorbed colours! I wonder if such harmony would exist had I done that – I suspect not. This is a lesson in letting the work guide me. It is ok to have the apple painted in absorbed colours and the table in representational colours because it works as a whole.

Both apples lack a bit of form, mainly because I found it very difficult to get darker areas using the rainbow palette. Perhaps I could have glazed another layer of blue over the right hand side of the realistic apple to increase the shadow. I was very aware that I was loosing brightness with every glaze and so held back. In the abstract apple, the darkest tones were always going to be more difficult and as such the right hand side does look rather flat. Without colour mixing or using black increasing the shadow strength was difficult. Putting a further glaze blue on the right hand side would have altered the tone of the dark to being blue, something I didn’t want.

With respect to my paintings, I could argue that the only truly successful one was the representation of the apple in the dark! I did paint an apple under there in black paint and then put the background in over the top. I could have painted this actually in the dark, but that seemed to be taking the conceptual idea too far (for what purpose, the outcome would have been the same). An apple in very low light may have been a better idea with a tendency to show a reduction in chroma at low light levels.

On the process

I recognise that I have gone totally over the top with this assignment. It should have been a relatively straightforward painting of a still life. I have over complicated it all with my investigations into colour, however I have learnt a lot in the process of doing this assignment. I have experimented with the concept of what colour is and what colour means to both artists and viewers. I have no great revelations as a result of this investigation but I feel happier in my self about using colour – it is transmutable, something that can be altered and transformed, almost sculptured. I now feel less inclined to think of colour as something to view and more of something to use, and to that effect this assignment has been a success.

I am certainly improving with techniques for using acrylics although I haven’t done as much in oils as I would have liked for this part. I still am not sue about what my preferred style is. I would like to be able to paint much more loosely but still am finding this alludes me (although there are some improvements from part 1). I do feel I would like to do more ‘drawing’ with paint to try to bring out this looseness, possibly on a larger scale than I have been currently working.

Additional comment on receiving tutor feedback

My tutor agreed that I had lost the vibrancy of the original two studies in my assignment pieces. She liked the absorbed colour apple and likened it to an ‘apple eclipse’, which is an interesting addition to the idea of absorbed colour. As an eclipse it would be colourless in either reflected light or absorbed light. I like this idea.  She didn’t have time to read my logic behind my process in this assignment but for me this really wasn’t about painting an apple, rather it was an investigation into how we can represent colour of objects. Whilst I made huge progress in understanding colour from this investigation I acknowledge that this means I didn’t progress with the technical side as much as I should have done, and that my best work is in fact the first of the two studies!

Part 2. Assignment 2: Still life in colour