Halation is Not Magic, rather it’s…
Halation: The Single Most Important Law of Color
A pile of color swatches were placed in front of us and we were told to organize them. We slid the paper color squares around on the table, trying to find relationship. As we would learn, we were ordering families of color. Each array was made up of two parent colors and their children.
Color harmony, often considered intuitive, can be hacked.
A great insight occurred when my teacher held in his hand three cards.
Only two colors were visible.
The red (more of an orange-red), behind the yellow.
As if teaching the rules of a card game, my professor leaned in to show me his hand.
Then, he slowly dragged the top yellow card away, revealing an orange card in the middle, and something astounding occurred: I saw trails of color.
I nearly jumped out of my chair.
A color gradient appeared across the middle orange— almost like it now had a depth of dimension. The middle card was a solid color, a perfect blend of the two outside parent colors. It seemed to animate, leaving a visual halo of the surrounding colors.
The color of the card couldn’t be changing. The glow was happening in my eyes.
Colors began to vibrate beyond themselves. They seemed to be aware of each other and become luminous.
How do solid colors appear three 3 dimensional? Where does this gradient come from?
Each color below is in relationship. In the animation below, the outside parent colors of magenta and green-yellow make seven equal steps of color color between them. The 7 children are solid color, but appear to be much more. That glow is halation.
What is Halation?
First used in English around 1855, the term “Halation” comes from the word “Halo”. In the dictionary, it is defined as “a blurred effect around the edges of highlight areas in a photographic image”. The dictionary definition of the word “halation” falls short in accessing it’s potential to wake up your sense of color.
My teacher, Dick Nelson, claimed he had learned the term “halation” in Josef Albers’ color course at Yale.
Over time, I would understand how discovering this simple illusion opened the door to visual perception.
When you start to see the individual color swatches within an array as gradients, you are seeing halation. It’s a phenomenon of our eyes to find a vibrancy in specific placements of colors.
So how does halation work?
Our visual perception, just like all of our senses, enhances contrast beyond what actually exists. Think about that. The biology of how we see is dictates elements of aesthetics like luminosity and vibrancy.
Our senses are hardwired to enhance contrast
There are rules to visual perception. As clear as grammar in language, and order in math, color has a language. When the apparent gradient is based on value, light to dark, the optical illusion is called Mach bands. At an edge, our eyes will make that middle grey look a little darker next to the light grey.
Below, meet two colors, we’ll call them the parents.
On the left, Orange, on the right, Cyan.
By mixing each color equally, we achieve the middle child.
The middle color seems to vibrate a little. If you don’t quite see it, look a little longer. The more you look, you allow a physical effect on your eyes as they fatigue which will increase the degree of color you see. What you will see in the middle swatch of color is a little of the orange on the right edge and a little cyan on the left edge.
Here’s a full array of different colors with equal steps of 5 children. The gradient, or halation is easier to see in this example:
Why does this matter?
Because getting a handle on halation allows you to sort colors into their proper families and perhaps more importantly it allows you to understand what colors can be used together to create vibrant glowing design or art.
In this digital age of screens everywhere in our lives, understanding color grammar is more important now than ever before.
My teacher’s teacher, Josef Albers was famous for proclaiming “Color is the most relative medium in art.”
In an another article, I discussed the potential for tension when complementary colors are placed next to each other. The laws of color dictate whether colors have depth or look flat, whether they clash or sing in harmony. The impressionists were aware of these laws and used them to create luminous artwork.
“If only I had known the laws of color in my youth” — Vincent Van Gogh
Once you know these rules, or laws of color, you’ll not just deepen an understanding of abstract art, you will open up your capacity for visual literacy.
Just as we understand how to construct a meaningful sentence, or do math or fit shapes together, color relationship is based on facts. Halation is the most important law of color and color grammar has never been more important than it is today.
Originally published at colorisrelative.com.