Color correction core concepts comes from far away. Many visual system’s empirical aspects were known even a hundred fifty years ago. What changed, a lot, is the professionals (artists, painters, designers) approach to technical subjects. Two hundreds years ago painters were art directors, creatives, scholars of light, colors and pigments, and held responsibilities for their results. They lived and died by their style. What about today?

Helmholtz, a great scientist, once wrote, “A study of the paintings of the great masters…is of great importance to physiological optics.” Now it is known that a study of perception and physiological optics is great importance indeed to art. Both the objective scientist and the subjective painter would do well to make friends.”

Faber Birren, Creative Color / 1961

Today to catch up with the power and fragmentation of the tools that we created we are forced to split in several categories, each with subsets of tasks. The trend I’ve witnessed for more than ten years now is to blindly overlook the digital side, thinking that this, now, could be the modern equivalent of pigments, tools or theories about lights.

Truth is color is still color. Learning about your computer may be useful to reduce the expenses, or to maintain it, but it will be no different than a painter that obsessively cleaned brushes every day. A beautiful portrait is still far, far away.

Why this happened, and how. Easy, marketing. And I’m not talking just about the computer and software manufacturers, that need to sell you anything, continuously. I’m especially thinking about the “now you can do everything” message.

Today you can be a colorist, a painter, an illustrator, and so on. Not because tools are cheap, but because skills needed to achieve results are lower. You can indefinitely undo, you can draw that line hundreds of time, you can redo that correction tens of times.

We can see how dangerous all of this is, many users spend a great deal of their time assembling computer, obsessing about RAM, GPUs, CPUs. They try software after software, app after app, producing very little.

Can we even envision a world were this approach leads to success? I think that probably if nobody understand what we are doing it will be very challenging even to try to criticise our results. And this is very possible in an extremely fragmented world. The more Photoshop is obscure to the general public, the more customers will be inclined to accept our work.

Still, I believe out there still exists professional with an impressive knowledge. Or that have invested a massive amount of time in refining and distilling their style. These power users will understand us in a second, and we need to able to satisfy their requests, and to collaborate with them.

Collaboration needs to have foundations on language, experiences, culture. This is where, finally, we can understand why some subtopics are of key importance in color correction. The visual system, and color perception, are topics that runs through all visual arts.

An historic example of simultaneous contrast and opponent colors: gold and lapis lazuli – Tutankhamun’s mask, 1323 Before Christ

Being proficient in these disciplines allows us to add a layer of complexity, refinement and seriousness to our work. As stated in the intro we should limit the range of topics we study, but we should also learn to pick better, and always against digital tools.

“The phenomenon of colored shadows and the more general phenomenon of simultaneous contrast lead to the famous generalization first stated by Chevraul (in 1839 ndDDS). As translated in 1854, he wrote: “All the phenomena I have observed seem to me to depend upon a very simple law, with, taken in its most general signification, may be expressed in these terms: In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the eight of their tone.”

Ralph M. Evans, The Perception of Color / 1974

On my desk now five books, from 1879, 1961, 1963, 1974, 1990, 2005 and all of them contains a section about simultaneous contrast. Why this topic has not successfully migrated into blog posts, workshops, events?

Much attention has been paid to color contrast. It has been superbly dem­onstrated in Josef Albers's Interaction of Color. The countereffect, namely assimilation, is rather neglected, although the antagonism of the two percep­tual mechanisms makes it imperative that the one should not be considered without the other. Since perceptual patterns tend toward the most clear-cut organization available, a configuration of colors will strive either toward con­trast or toward assimilation, depending on which is closer to the given stimu­lus information. We also can apply the concepts of sharpening and leveling, which served us to describe modifications of shapes.

Assimilation is closely related to the additive combination of colors. When the hues bordering on each other are sufficiently similar or when the areas carrying the hues are sufficiently small, the colors will approach each other rather than emphasize contrast. Jameson and Hurvich have proposed a physio­logical theory that accounts for at least some aspects of the phenomenon. They remind us that the microscopically small receptors in the retina do not act singly but as constituents of receptive fields, each of which combines the action of a large number of receptors and reports as a unit to a single ganglion cell. Within each field, the receptors respond antagonistically: in the central area the response to the intensity and color of light is positive, in the surrounding receptors it is negative. When these receptor fields are relatively small they discriminate sharply between stimulus areas of reasonably large size and emphasize the contrast between them.

When the stimulus areas are small, e.g., when they form a fine-grained dot pattern, as would reach the eye from a divisionist painting, there will be no resolution and the result will be a true additive mixture. When the units are somewhat larger, however, assimilation (sometimes called the Bezold Spreading Effect) may result, owing to the fact that the receptor fields vary in size. Some are more than six times the size of others. In consequence, the narrower fields will be discriminating enough to tell the difference between areas of different colors, whereas the broader ones will encompass the different areas and thus reduce the brightness and color difference between them through additive interaction.

Relations between hues cannot be described adequately without reference to saturation and brightness. Experiments have shown that the distinctness of color depends more upon brightness than upon hue. Susanne Liebmann found that when, for example, a red figure is put on a green background of exactly equal brightness, the boundaries become fluid, soft, colloidal. The figure-ground distinction vanishes, objects look incorporeal, and differences of distance are hard to distinguish; shape tends to melt, the points of stars disappear, triangles look rounded, rows of dots merge. Therefore it is not surprising that painters usually reinforce differing hues by differing brightness. When they do entrust distinction between neighboring areas to hue alone, they rely mostly on what I have called clash or mutual repulsion. For example, there may be a blue-green background bordering on a reddish-blue coat of approximately identical brightness and saturation. This would seem to con­firm the view that the most effective distinction between hues is brought about by clash.

Art and visual perception, Rudolf Arnheim, 1954

It is now easier to understand why it is so important to learn about simultaneous contrast (as a proxy for color perception). It is a phenomenon that influences all visual arts, photographer, web designers, colorists, painters. It has been known, for a reason, for centuries.

This modern fragmentation is forcibly opposing our mission, with false promises. We will not be better ignoring our history, and how our body works, and we will not work faster. Why Birren’s lesson has been ignored so much? And what else are we completing ignoring?