Colour - Understanding vs. Perception


Developing superior colour sensitivity • by Michael Downs


Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch… these are the five basic senses that perceive external stimuli which in turn are interpreted by our brains. Each sense can be refined with training, practice, and experience.


Sommeliers train their palates for tasting the subtle flavours within a good wine; conductors train their ears for hearing the nuance of sounds within an orchestra; and hence, painters should train their eyes for seeing variation of colours within their subject matter.


Hardly any person would argue that to be an expert sommelier a key skill is superior flavour perception, or that to be an excellent conductor a key skill is superior sound perception. Since colour is primarily how we describe any visual subject matter, it ought to follow that to be an exceptional painter a key skill would be superior colour perception.


Colour perception skills in painting evolved mainly during the Impressionism movement. Prior to this time in history, paintings were usually executed using a tonal/value approach, due in large part to the limited range of pigments available (mostly earth tones). With the onset of the industrial revolution, came two major advancements for painters:


  • The invention of new metal based intense pigments that enabled painters to actually make a realistic and complete color wheel.

  • The invention of paint tubes that made painting outdoors more practical.

In the late 1800’s, Monet took advantage of these modern conveniences, and ventured outside to paint. Over a twenty year period of plein air painting, he “discovered” (or really just saw), that changing light affected the colours of the objects he was observing. In 1890, his observations culminated in a thematic study – 25 works in total – of haystacks to demonstrate how the time of day, different seasons, and various weather conditions altered colour. This was not an arbitrary or subjective study of colour, but rather an objective study of how light conditions affect colour. The industrial revolution gave painters the ability and Monet gave painters the awareness to go beyond value-based perception into the new realm of colour-based perception.


Today, we have more modern pigments than Monet could have ever imagined, but even one hundred years later colour is still being overlooked. I ask myself why this is the case because in all fairness colour, NOT value, defines our visual world. Yet it seems that learning and developing colour perception is being largely ignored in favour of value. The only answer I have for this incongruity is that colour is much more perplexing than value to master. The following quote alludes to the fact that even Monet had to constantly challenge his brain to defy his own preconceived colour notions, and to allow his observations of true colour to create form.


“I wish I had been born blind and then could suddenly see. Then I would naturally just paint the colours, and not be distracted by the objects in front of me.” – Monet


While many artists have studied colour extensively, there is still little understanding about colour perception, despite the concept existing since Monet. The problem seems to be that most artists are taught colour understanding and that is a very different thing from colour perception. This very basic comparison expresses some differences between the two and will give you an idea of whether you use your understanding of colour or perception of colour when you paint.


Colour Understanding

Knowledge & Recall

  • Blue and yellow make green.

  • Ultramarine is a warm blue while Cerulean is a cool blue.

  • Mixing colours across the colour wheel results in “mud”.

  • Easy to learn (a memorization of facts, that can be presented in a book)

  • One time acquisition (once you learn that blue and yellow make green, you know it)

  • Very useful, but often limited (allows you to copy, paint by formula, or make subjective/expressive colour choices)

Colour Perception

Sensory Input & Evaluation

  • What are the qualities of the colour I am looking at? (warm/cool, dull/intense, light/dark)

  • How does the colour vary from one area of an object to another?

  • Is the relativity of the colour correct within my painting?

  • Challenging to learn (a training of the eye to become more sensitive to colour input and a training of the brain to properly interpret rather than insert previously acquired information, that can only be acquired through training, practice, and experience)

  • Ongoing process (once you begin, you will continuously be refining your perception skills)

  • Very useful, limitless (allows you to make objective colour choices giving you complete freedom to paint any subject matter in any style desired)

Colour can be mixing paint and learning the colour wheel, or it can be so much more… it all begins with your eyes. 


Michael is well-known for his teaching style and teaches methods used by professional artists. He believes in showing students the foundations of both drawing and painting, so that students can take their skills and apply them to any style and medium of their choosing. In oils Michael encourages his students to work "directly" to take advantage of the properties of the paint. In water-colour, his philosophy is simplicity, keeping it fresh and luminous. In both mediums he emphasizes training the eye to see both shape and colour, to quickly improve skill level.


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