Chromatic Reflections

Chromatic Reflections is a photo series exploring the interactions between the spectral colors and materials that reflect their surroundings.

The light source is sunlight shining through a prism, dispersing into the spectral colors. The materials (besides skin) are colorless: they reflect every wavelength of color approximately uniformly. If the materials were lit by white light in a dark setting, they would appear monochrome. Under colored lights, the materials would take on those colors.

Through the illumination of these pure colors, we can more clearly see the materials’ optical properties (diffuse/specular reflection, refraction, transmission, absorption, translucency/scattering) and textural qualities (micro/macro scale). We can also see colors overlapping and reflecting multiple times, combining additively into new colors.

humidifier mist
facial tissue
pan and water droplets
wine glasses, stainless steel ice cubes, ice, water

My primary motivation for this photo series was to explore and build an intuition of these kinds of optical interactions, and to get started with working with light and materials in general. But Chromatic Reflections is also a reflection on color. Specifically, the aesthetics of spectral colors and digital abstraction.

In the wild, natural displays of spectral colors (i.e. rainbows) are uncommon, exciting, intense, and spectacular. This striking visual quality along with the emotional associations strongly influences how we use rainbows in media. We use rainbows in children’s products to make them visually stimulating and to convey playfulness. We use rainbows in stories, figures of speech, and cliché moments in films to suggest positive emotions like wonder, peace, and happiness. We use rainbows in psychedelic art and light productions for raves to overwhelm and induce sensory overload. We use rainbows in the LGBT flag for the bold display of expression and the symbolism of diversity and inclusiveness: “We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things.

This photo series is, partly, a reaction to all the associations previously described, demonstrating an alternative use of spectral colors far removed from our expectations of rainbows. The visual quality remains intrinsically intense, but these colors are applied with more subtlety, restraint, and a lot more abstraction. I go out of my way to call these colors “spectral colors” instead of “rainbows” to bring attention to the objective qualities over the associations of rainbows.

The abstraction and focus on light physics is inspired by 3D computer graphics. In traditional art, the artist contemplates the variations of their choice of material. In digital art, in the medium of 3D computer graphics, the artist must consider the elements of visual and physical reality: Starting from an empty black void, the artist has to create a world from scratch using the primitives of light sources, materials, and geometries, and contemplate the effects of light physics. Typically, a minimal demo consists of a single object and a light source of some sort. As a result, basic graphics demos tend to be the glowing object floating in space, in a highly artificial and unfamiliar environment.

This photo series was created using this approach to CGI: Start with an empty black void (a cardboard box covered in black clothes), take a light source, and apply it to materials with a desired set of properties. The result has a digital aesthetic and uncanny quality reminiscent of the minimal graphics demo: Glowing objects floating in space, lifted into abstraction, far removed from conventional associations.