color UNIT VI: Local and Reflected Color

Project VIH Color Perception and Expression

Studio Fundamentals: To understand our varied perception of the actual color of an object. To review the historical and contemporary uses of local, reflected, and expressive color. To use color perception to clarify, add to, or create personal expression and meaning.

Thematic Concept: To explore various methods of approaching Nature as a theme in Art.

Project Overview Referencing an actual scene illuminated under two light sources, you will create two paintings on canvas--one that accurately renders the reflected light of the scene, another that explores an alternative lighting condition or expressive interpretation of the scene.
References for further study Zelanski and Fisher, Color, Chapters 3 and 4
Vocabulary local color, local value, reflected color, expressive color, subjective vs. objective, abstraction, realism, subject matter vs. content, color constancy.
Materials Camera. Two stretched canvases of identical size (11 x 14 or larger) Painting materials of your choice.


Before coming to class, review the thematic concept the Natural World as found on the website. Also read the discussion Local Versus Reflected Color for Unit VI. Review the Project References and Vocabulary above.


Step One: Find or create a scene from which you will make two paintings. This scene must be from real life--it cannot be imaginary or based in fantasy. It can be a street scene, a still life, a landscape, or any other scene that creates an interesting painting. As an aid, avoid objects or backgrounds that are white, in accordance with the laws of color constancy.

Step Two: Take a photograph of this scene under two different lighting conditions. For example, take the first one in morning light and the second in sunset light. Develop or print these pictures and bring them to class.

Step Three: Get two stretched canvases of the same size (11 x 14" or larger) and draw the same exact image on each canvas. You may transfer the image from a drawing or tracing of the original image. These images must be exact--no change in composition is permitted unless there is a conceptual reason for it.

Step Four: Render the first painting in reflected color as viewed under the first light source. This should end up being a very realistic image (in terms of color); these are not just flat (local) colors. This is a difficult problem and will need to really push your abilities to see and imagine how light and color really work. I would suggest setting up and observing the objects under the same lighting conditions you are trying to portray or, if it is a landscape, painting outside.

Step Five: Render your second drawing in expressive color as viewed under the second light source. You may, if you wish, explore the effects of expressive or abstract color in this second image. You may leave some parts the same with key elements changed. The change may be subtle or dramatic. Take into consideration the effects of color we've studied so far--e.g., emotional/symbolic effects, subjective preferences, color interactions, color schemes, etc. Remember to use the second light source as a focus.

Discussion and Critique Ideas

When you have completed your composition, divide into small groups and exchange artworks with another group from the class. Within your group, work together to respond to each painting in turn. Consider the following:

  • Describe the light sources and painting techniques your fellow artists used and explain how various effects were achieved.
  • Point out any personal symbols or expressive methods of paint handling the artist used to indicate a particular meaning or mood.
  • Discuss ideas the artwork seems to communicate.
  • After some sharing of interpretations, attempt to state the message of the composition in one sentence. (This artwork is about. . .)
  • Explain how the shapes, symbols, or other elements of the composition support its message.

From a problem by Katherine Nicholson, copyright 2005

Return to UNIT VI Overview