Thursday, April 12, 2012

That's White...right?

Architects seem to love white.  Most homes have white siding or trim.  Most traditional buildings use limestone or a white marble.  And, although modern buildings are largely glass and can choose an unlimited range of colors for the paneling and mullions, a surprising number go with white or a "white" metal like brushed aluminum.  However, when it comes to representing the white surfaces of buildings the reality is that nothing is pure white.  Artists throughout history have known this intuitively, avoiding pure white, and instead dancing around the light blues, pinks and lavenders that you actually see.
Above is a photo from a visit to my family in Minnesota.  It isn't always winter in Minnesota, but it sometimes feels that way.  Anyway, note lack of any pure white in the pure white snow.  The color is entirely a mix of the late day warm colored sunlight, and the reflection of the blue sky.  And don't get me started on snow...
 A late day pile of the nasty white stuff.
The blue on the mountain is obviously snow, even though it matches the sky blue beyond...
I've cut out a square in this painting to show that even here the white snow isn't quite white.
And just to warm us up visually, this cherry blossom has only a few spots approaching pure white, but the effect is still experienced as white petals.

Actually the picture that got me thinking about the color (or non-color) white was a picture of a statue in the Wall Street Journal (March 24, 2012).  The Dying Achilles by Ernst Herter is carved from white marble, but the photo that was printed was dramatic and very colorful.
 It was all golds, creams, greys and blues - no white.  But the mind said "white marble".  I Googled the statue just to see what other photos would come up...
It is quite a range of colors; all of which scream (well, sometimes whisper) "I'm white marble".

So, getting back to the problem of architectural reality and architectural illustration, what is going on here?  The human brain learns early on that the raw visual data that it receives from the senses mean different things.
For instance, the light grey in the center of the photo above is a shadow on the white paper.  Your brain knows that even though the grey is the same shade as the grey board behind the white paper.  Similarly the shadow on the grey board is the same shade as the top of the black briefcase, but your brain knows that one is shadowed grey and the other is sunlit black. The context gives the additional information needed to construct reality, and it does it all without consulting the conscious, logical side of the brain.  You just know what your looking at, just as you know how to throw a ball without calculating the effect of gravity.
The perception of colors on a white surface is a matter of the color of the original light source and the color of the reflecting surface.  The above photo shows the strong green and red tones reflected by the adjacent green and red boards.  The triangle of white at the center is ever so slightly pink, but it is hardly noticeable due to the mid day sun overwhelming any reflected color.  If I had photographed at sunset the triangle would have had a noticeable golden cast, and the shadows would have had a contrasting cool cast.
So, when it comes to representing architecture I tend to avoid pure white (and neutral greys).  A cool shadow juxtaposed by a warm white is livelier than simple grey and white.  The pure white square in the watercolor sketch above gives you a frame of reference.
Interiors will have endless color variations as the white surfaces catch the reflections of other surfaces, and the spill from artificial and natural light.
You don't have to be blatant in your use of color.  A touch of blue in the shadows keeps the interest going while not taking away from the pure color accents.
Computer rendering programs allow you to warm up your interior lighting while cooling down your ambient exterior light.  Touching up afterwards in Photoshop or by hand can give further variation and believability.
The basic problem of rendering white surfaces is quite simple.  The potential variations however, are enormous. Allowing a certain degree of variation creates a more believable image, and the juxtaposition of the shimmering almost real and the white paper is magical.

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