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Crazy Colors: What Happens When You Paint in a Dark Room

I am going to school for art education so that I can teach high school art. I want to inspire young people to be the best that they can be.

What Is a Dark Room?

Right off the bat, I'm going to explain what a dark room is because a lot of people nowadays don't know. A dark room is a room where photographers can develop film without it being ruined by regular light. In a dark room, there is light, however, all of the lights are red because that is the least destructive sort of lighting when it comes to developing film.

Fun fact, it is also the best sort of lighting to use at night because your eyes don't have to adjust nearly as much as they do for white light. Anyway, with all of the digital photography, there are few who still practice using a dark room, but many places still have these spaces. Well, my teacher decided that we would use it for a completely different purpose! We had to make a painting in a dark room with red lighting. He warned us that the results would be surprising.

This is the sort of dark room that I painted in. The kind that they use for film photography.

This is the sort of dark room that I painted in. The kind that they use for film photography.

Does Green Always Look Green?

Does green always look like green? One would think so. However, as I found out, this is not always the case. That question is almost like Hamlet's famous, "To be or not to be?" Except that when deciding whether or not "to be," there is a choice, but when it comes to whether or not a color looks like it should, it's not up to you.

Science becomes a major factor in whether or not a color looks like its usual self. As I said above, I was given the assignment to make a painting in a dark room, where the only light was red instead of white. This made it almost impossible to distinguish which colors were which. All that I could really distinguish was the relative values of the colors.

To prepare, I had previously planned my lights and darks because I knew that that would be the main thing I would be able to distinguish, rather than color. Although, I felt like I could tell yellow apart from the other colors more than anything else, and there is a solid reason.

The Science of Color

To explain the convoluted science of this craziness, I first have to explain how colors work. There are two ways colors mix, additive and subtractive. When different colors of light mix, they add together to make white. Pigment colors, like paint, are subtractive. When they get mixed all color is subtracted leaving black. Things only get more confusing from here.

When white light shines on things colors are reflected back. Since white light contains all of the different colors in the light spectrum, like in a rainbow, all colors are distinguishable. This works because the object absorbs all the colors except the color that it actually is, that color is reflected and is the color we perceive. So, when looking at a green object, green is the perceived color because it is the only color reflected.

Here is a diagram of additive and subtractive colors

Here is a diagram of additive and subtractive colors

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How Red Light Reacts With Colors

All of that gets screwed up when the light is given a color itself, say red like in the darkroom. Now, instead of the light containing all of the colors in the spectrum, there is only red to reflect. So, only red and colors containing red were easier to tell apart.

Colors like blue and green were practically black because they absorbed all of the red light and reflected nothing, leaving only value, or in some cases perceived value to tell them apart from other colors. I say perceived value because, at times, even value couldn’t help with this dark room painting.

As I was painting, I thought I was using a dark color at times, but when I saw the painting in regular lighting I found out that it was bright green. It totally threw off the entire value structure of my piece. The reason the green looked so dark was that it absorbed all of the red and didn’t reflect a single thing. Purple, on the other hand, was slightly distinguishable because it contains red. The purple looked grey because a little bit of red was reflected, but a lot of it was absorbed as well. While yellow has no red to reflect, it is a light color by nature and that held true even with the red light.

Here is what my painting looked light while it was still in the dark room. Can you guess which colors are which now that I've explained how the red light works?

Here is what my painting looked light while it was still in the dark room. Can you guess which colors are which now that I've explained how the red light works?

Perception vs Science

When I was in the darkroom, I was really liking how my painting was coming about. All I really had control of was how well my paint was applying to the surface and how nice and neat I was being. Of course, as I said before, I could also tell some difference between dark and light colors. However, even that turned out to be a farce in a few situations.

Some colors looked really dark, even though in regular lighting they did not appear so. Color adds an entirely new dimension to the concept of contrast. Red and green are complementary colors, which means that they really make each other pop. When someone uses red right next to green, it can create a lot of contrast. It can also make you think about Christmas! But that doesn't really matter for what I'm trying to say.

Even though red and green give a lot of color contrast, when pure red and pure green are made black and white, there is very little distinction between the two because they have the same value tone (unless you happen to be using a lighter green or red, but the point I'm trying to make is for when they are both just regular red crayon, green crayon colors). So, when color is taken out of the equation, a lot of contrast is lost.

When I was painting, I thought that my little bird (who was my subject) was looking pretty good. I thought I would come out with a nice painting, a cute little bird. In my opinion, what I came out with was scary. Not at all what I had imagined. As I was painting, I thought rather boldly that I could tell for the most part which colors were which and that the red light didn't have that much effect on me. Boy, was I wrong. Science is science, baby. The final result is waiting for you below.

I see your true colors—here's what my bird painting really looks like.

I see your true colors—here's what my bird painting really looks like.

Artist's Reflection

It takes a lot of thought to try to work through why colors look different in different lighting but witnessing it really helped to make sense of it. I think there is practical application as well. When I was trying to do some research about light and color interactions, I found a lot about different colors of paint for walls and homes and how light can affect them and make them feel different.

It also made me think about black lights, although after researching I found out that black lights work a little differently because they use ultraviolet and make a variety of colors shine. That is beside the point though. The point is that different lighting can cause a variety of different things to happen to the optical quality of colors. It messes with your brain and eyes quite a bit, or it will if you ever decide to try to paint in a dark room.

What Do You Think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.