How Colors Advance and Recede in Art

Can colors be used to suggest depth in painting? The idea might sound absurd seeing how a painting is a two-dimensional entity. But it is quite widely known that red will appear to advance and blue will appear to recede. But there is more to it than this simple rule. How can colors be used to suggest proximity in a painting?

Why Blue Recedes

A misty day will make certain objects take on particular hues according to distance. Mountains a few miles away may appear blue, violet or such cool hues due to atmospheric particles reflecting the color of the blue sky.

A clear sky itself brings about a feeling of depth, of eternity. By association, blue pigments will suggest distance, and therefore will appear to recede from the viewer in a painting. Blue colors such as ultramarine, pthalo blue, manganese blue, cobalt, cyan and cerulean produce short wave lengths on the visual spectrum. The color with the shortest visual wavelength of all is violet. Beyond this lies ultraviolet.

Warm Colors and Cool Colors

Light Colors and Dark Colors

But it is not merely whether a color is warm or cool that brings about the suggestion of proximity, but also tonality. A dark color will appear to advance where a pale color will appear to recede. Place pale red next to dark red and the dark red will appear to advance. Place neat ultramarine next to a pale ultramarine and the darker color will appear closer to the viewer than the paler color. So in general, a wishy-washy color will appear to recede; a punchy color will appear to advance.

Neutrality of a Color

Cool colors in general will appear to recede, where warm colors will appear to advance. Warm colors include reds, oranges, maroons and pinks. Warm colors are located on the opposite region of the color spectrum to blues, as their visual wavelengths are by comparison long. Red emits the longest visual wavelength of all. Beyond this lies infrared which is not visible. As warm colors and cool colors are located on opposing sides of the color spectrum, they will appear to clash when placed side by side. Place a cool color next to a warm color and the effect of colors receding or advancing is more pronounced. Colors in Context

But there is more to color behavior than this, for a warm color placed next to an even warmer color will itself appear to recede as it appears cooler in context. Permanent rose although a warm color by itself will appear to possess a violet-blue cast when placed next to cadmium orange. These two colors placed side by side will bring out their inherent color temperatures.

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Another factor that affects our perception of color and distance is saturation. Color saturation is how bright or pure a color appears. A dazzling color will appear to advance. Mix a little earth color or an opposing color into this bright color and its increased neutrality will make it appear to recede. So muted colors will appear to recede; pure colors will appear to advance. Painting Detail and Harsh Edges

Colors that possess crisp edges will appear closer to the viewer than colors with blurred edges. Similarly, an object with high detail will draw the eye and feel ‘closer’ to the viewer than an object that possesses little detail or that which suggests detail. Monet’s impressionist sunsets due to suggestive brushwork feels far away. If an object of high detail were placed within the painting, in the style of Canaletto, the object possessing the high, crisp detail will feel closer to the viewer.

Color Manipulation in Painting

So a combination of the described factors in color behavior can be used in the same painting to suggest depth or draw the eye. Cool colors will appear to recede; warm colors will appear to advance. The same applies to pale and dark colors, as to how pure a color appears. High detail will appear closer to the viewer than blurred detail. But colors in context is also a factor, as a warm color in isolation could appear cool when placed next to an even warmer color.