Skip to content

The Art of Seeing

Read time: 5 minutes

I love to garden. 

I especially enjoy the current seasonal color schemes and anxiously anticipate the next season's floribunda. Each new plant is an opportunity to add color harmony or contrast, and I put my color skills to use while gardening (and most of the things I do).

In my post Personal with Color, I shared a bit of color history, color terms to know, and color qualities to understand. This was to help build a foundational understanding of color. 

Now we can talk about the Art of Seeing, with the hope for you to discover your own joy of color.

In other words — let’s get arty!  

My garden is full of color with pink Peonies, orange-yellow Nasturtium, and yellow Black-eyed Susans flowers, just to name a few.

Close up of Peonies in bloom

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that a great way to understand how color behaves is to pull out a paint set and begin mixing paints. In this way I can relate to what Josef Albers says about art:

Interaction of Color, Josef Albers

So we’re going to take Josef’s lead, and we’ll jump in and begin our own color experience. 

(And don’t worry, paint is not required for the exercise.) 

Let’s make a collection of color swatches to work with. You can use paint or cut up paper color swatches from old magazines, paper samples, fabric swatches, or paint swatches from your local paint store if you’re uncomfortable with paint. 

First, out of the things you pulled together, cut two pieces of the same color and size. The goal is to end up with several pairs of colors — different shades (darkness) and tints (brightness). Once you have a variety of pairs of the same size, organize them in pairs and set them off to the side. 

Cut color paper swatches

Next, arrange two large flat pieces of color cloth, paper, or whatever you have. Lay the large pieces flat next to each other and place the smaller colors swatch pairs you just cut in the middle of the color fields. Pay special attention to the light. Lighting is important, so make sure that there are no light streaks or shadows across your work area. 

The left orange rectangle is placed onto a brown background color. The same orange rectangle is placed onto a pink background color.

Here's what I see.

The left orange rectangle looks brighter, sharper, and closer. The right orange rectangle looks duller, softer, and recedes.

Let's see what happens when a dark red color is placed on the same background.

The dark red looks duller, softer, and receding on the dark brown color. The dark red looks brighter, sharper, and closer on the pink background.

Let's see what happens when a mid-gray color is placed on the same background

The mid-gray color looks a bit brighter and a bit sharper on the dark brown color and the mid-gray color looks duller and softer on the pink background. The rectangles look to be at even distances.

The differences are subtle.

What happens when we use a complementary color of one of the background colors?

This example uses a green rectangle on both backgrounds.

The green color looks brighter, softer, and recedes on the dark brown color while the darker green color is sharper, darker, and appears to be closer on the pink background. The green rectangle on the pink background looks like a dark gray, almost black.

Now it's your turn!

Now you’re ready. It’s time to examine your colors. 

Methodically place in the middle of each large swatch a set of colors and ask yourself these questions: 

  • What do you observe? 
  • Do the smaller colors look the same or different? 
  • How does the bigger color affect the smaller swatch?
  • Does the temperature of the color affect the: 
    • Result? 
    • Value?
    • Temperature?
    • Contrast by complement?
    • Simultaneous contrast?
    • Chromatic colors “light values?”

Swap the small color swatches with a new pair. How do your observations differ with each color pair?

Now you know the art of seeing color!

Color experts can teach us many ways to see color—they can be experienced in person at museums and online.

Josef Albers Homage to the Square-Night Shades painting

A significant piece from the Homage to the Square series Study for Homage to the Square: Night Shades, 1956. Presented at the Museum of Modern Art. 


And if you have access to one, give Josef Albers Interaction with Color app a try (only available on iPad). 

I don’t receive any royalties but I thought this may be a fun alternative to the previous activity. If you want to learn more about it, this video promoting the app features artists, designers, and teachers giving their opinions on the interaction of color and how it brings joy to our lives. 

Interaction of Color iPad app

The more you practice, the more you’ll observe and understand the relationships of color.

This is the Art of Seeing, and you’ll look at your world a lot differently. 

Color is addictive.  

Farbkreis by Johannes Itten. A triangle composed of yellow, red, and blue, surrounded by triangles created by blending each of the adjacent colors. Enclosing the whole piece is a circle of 12 colors from red through violet.
Picture of Farbkreis by Johannes Itten.

The basic principles of color and the structure of the color wheel can be understood with some focus. History offers many masters who we can reference for guidance or inspiration. Color theory in practice is a complex topic rooted in both art and science.

”Trust your own instincts”

Just jump into the art of color, apply principles, learn from color theorists of the past, and color your world. 

Coming up...

We’re not quite done discussing the beauty and complexity of color, and we’ll be diving into the Science of Color next.

Stay tuned for more!