By Emma Young
Take a look at this painting “Rhythm, Joy of Life” from 1930 by the French artist Robert Delaunay. Do you find it colorful? And do you like it
Now what if every pixel in a digital version were rotated the same distance on a “color wheel” that represents every color that humans can see? Technically, the number of different colors in the picture would be the same – but you would probably perceive it that way Fewer colorful. And even if you’ve never seen the original before, you’re probably going to like it less. At least that is the conclusion of a fascinating new piece of work in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. The work helps to understand not only why certain colors are more common in art, but also how we perceive color.
Carolin S. Altmann and colleagues from the Experimental Aesthetics working group at Friedrich Schiller University Jena identified 100 colorful abstract works of art by well-known artists for the first time. They then turned in 60-degree steps through a 360-degree wheel of perceptible colors. This gave them six different colored digital versions of each work of art, for a total of 600 images. Twenty young participants with normal eyesight used a six-point scale to rate each version of each work of art for “colorfulness” and separately (on a different day) for how much they liked it.
The team found that all but one of the participants found the originals to be more colorful than the other versions. In addition, about three-quarters of the participants preferred the originals over the color-shifted versions. “This effect is surprisingly consistent not only with the participants, but also with the images and has even survived strict statistical control of potential disruptive factors,” reports the team. In fact, 81% of the original images were both more popular and more colorful. The team’s analysis also showed that the participants not only liked very colorful pictures, but “they prefer versions of works of art that they perceive as more colorful”.
Each rotation included the same number of perceptible colors. So – assuming the attendees weren’t familiar with the artwork (and there’s no reporting about it in the newspaper) – the color palettes chosen by the artists must be special, argued the team.
Their analysis showed that three quarters of the works of art have more yellow and orange than other hues. (This was also the case for an additional 113 works of art that the team had originally identified for possible inclusion in the study). Other research has also shown that artists have a tendency towards the yellow-orange realm. So why could that be?
More yellow in an image could make it appear closer to a scene lit by natural daylight (even if it’s an abstract image) and so is preferred, the researchers suggest. But the human visual system also reacts less sensitively to bluish-yellow inputs than to red, for example. (It was assumed that this made it easier for our ancestors to quickly recognize reddish ripe fruits in changing light conditions from sunrise to sunset.) Overrepresent colors in their color palette so that they are more perceptible to the human observer than other hues, ”writes the team.
“Yellow” is also a narrow “color category”. That is, the number of different hues that we perceive as examples of yellow is quite small; it’s a lot bigger for red we say. So while rotation could easily have changed a yellow pixel to a pixel of a different color category, a red pixel can still be a kind of “red” – which could make up the artwork seem to be to be less colorful and also less complex. Other studies have found that more complex works of art tend to receive higher aesthetic ratings, so seemingly more complex versions of the same painting might be preferred.
However, not all languages use the same color categories. For example, “light blue” and “dark blue” are fundamentally different categories in Russian and Greek – in which a color cannot simply be called “blue”. It has been suggested that the categories of color a person is familiar with affect their perception of color. It would therefore be interesting to see if a study with participants using different color categories would produce different results.
It is also worth noting that the majority of the participants in this study were women, and other work has found that men and women do not perceive color quite equally. So there are still a lot of questions related to this work – but it will be really interesting to see what the answers are.
– Love of art and color perception
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles