Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What Color Is An Astronaut's Spacesuit?

It's white, right?

Well, not so fast.

In an evenly lit environment like, say, a white room with a couple bright lights that effectively cancel out shadows, something like a spacesuit might look totally white . . .

. . . but then again, like this painting I did last night, our world is full of all sorts of lighting conditions. Even in the vacuum of space with nothing filtering the sun's rays, you can see a wide range of values and colors just in the spacesuit alone.

The white color shows only where direct sunlight is hitting the surface, and then in the rest of the suit you can see oranges, reds, and browns in the shadows, and on some of the parts of his body that are facing the Earth below, you can see the color of the planet bouncing a bluish tint back onto the suit. The strange little whatchamacallit that he is holding looks mostly grey and white, but there are some parts of it that are actually a light brown color. However, when all these colors are put together, they end up looking natural in relation to each other.

The overall color that the eye perceives an object to be is the local color, and it is something that any artist must train themselves to avoid focusing on too much. For example, an apple is red, a banana is yellow, the sky is blue, clouds are white, right?... Overall, that is the way we all understand them to be. Certainly nobody would ever say a banana is blue or a basketball is green, except in extremely unusual and artificial lighting conditions.

If we take a step back and really look, though, one can see that a given object can exhibit an almost infinite variety of colors, all at the same time, but a lot depends on the lighting. As you can see below, the colors on the apple and banana aren't all that shockingly different from the blocks of color I painted below them, and that's because they're photographed in a very sterile, white environment. But then take a look at the colors near the right for the sky scene... none of those are the colors of the sky; those are the colors in the clouds themselves. It's also important to note that none of those colors is pure white. Only in the areas of the clouds most directly illuminated by the sun do we find colors that are close to white, but few things in nature are ever 100% white. Conversely, few things in nature are ever pure black. This is one reason that beginning painters often have a hard time with painting realistic shadows.

A painter needs to really observe these variations in order to make their work look authentic, and it is absolutely crucial--whether in traditional or digital painting--when observing your subject and trying to decide which colors to paint with. An apple might have a local color of red, but there will undoubtedly be regions of these things that exhibit many other colors. If, for example, an apple is sitting on a blue tablecloth on your kitchen table, the bottom of the apple will exhibit bluish and purplish colors due to the light reflecting off the tablecloth.

In the astronaut painting above, although I used a reference photo, it was still necessary to try and separate the variety of colors on the spacesuit, especially in the shadow areas. You'll notice that many of the shadows are "warm" colors like browns, reds, and oranges. If I had just made them all various shades of grey and black, the painting wouldn't have looked convincing at all. Similarly, if I had just made the whole suit white, it would have looked flat, boring, and most of all, unrealistic.

For me personally, I started off by painting the black of space first, then I painted the planet below. A good general rule is to paint from the background to the foreground, and that's what I tried to do. With all things like this, you usually do a block of one color, and then fill in the details. When it came to the astronaut, I was very tempted to draw his silhouette with a whitish color, but really, the bright parts of his suit are the minority... most of it is not brightly illuminated. To sketch in a whitish color for his body would have been a bit strange looking, and perhaps even disorienting. Instead, I blocked in his silhouette using a dark, reddish-brown color... I started with the darker colors, and from then on, I worked into adding the brighter colors to the piece

Anyhow, I've also been working on another piece for the past week or so, and unlike this painting, it is completely imaginary... not surprisingly, creating a fully imaginary piece is a lot more difficult than painting something from observation. I'll be sure to post some pictures of my progress soon.


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