Looking at colour - (Part 1)

"I don't remember it looking so green"



Colour and our notions of what is 'accurate' is a favourite point of discussion in our hobby, but how many of us actually know how colour works and what the limitations are when painting, photographing and viewing our models?


In this first of three blog posts, I'll investigate why we should get our heads around how we see and experience colour, before moving on to the fundamental differences between what we brush or spray onto our model and what we see on the screen, It's essential reading before getting all anxious about the accuracy of that latest pot of OD41!

Colour is just one of the perennial topics in the usual forum-based virtual Mexican standoffs because well, we all think we know what a certain colour looks like and our eyes which have seen lots and lots of examples of RLM76 know the real deal when we see it, and anyway our reference books and their factory referenced chips don't lie do they?


The disagreements usually start around a perceived slight or back-handed compliment (helped along by social media’s inability to convey tone, intention and verbal/non-verbal clues). The well-intentioned comment will proceed to get behind the round-down faster than an F7 Cutlass. . .

. . . Spreading its rapidly disintegrating thread content all over the forum, the verbal impact site might require some serious FOD clean up on the part of the hapless moderator. These spats are usually resolved only when the wisdom of some ‘elder statesman’ of model making is dragged (involuntarily) into the argument to settle some obscure point.


Regardless of where the discussion goes, the utterly bizarre “my very good friend the ‘expert’ is bigger/cleverer than you and he knows what RLM 02 really looks like, coz he’s got a Bf109 in his shed” argument is always a tacit admission of defeat.


So let's turn the contrast and saturation dials to 11 and just crack on shall we?


Men behaving boldly


Joking aside, this post isn’t really about grown ups behaving like 7 year-olds, or an exercise in damage limitation 101 for discussion thread moderators; it’s about colour perception.

So how do we prevent potential technicolour argy bargy and broaden our understanding of how we perceive colour to apply this to our hobby and of course, our model photography? Firstly: Our hobby is largely dependent on our tacit acceptance of someone else’s technical analysis of colour value. Everything we do in styrene-land has a colour value attached to it and this colour has to be accurate. It's an accepted norm.


What we see isn’t what we always get


But thinking about the colour on our models is more than just the accepted or questioned value of a pot of mass produced paint and how easy it is to use. The key to consistently accurate replication of our models when photographing them, is understanding how colour is produced and represented from both a theoretical and practical viewpoint.


From this fundamental knowledge we can then look at our references with fresh eyes and make some informed choices about what we are seeing and how we might replicate this in miniature.


The same but different?


So the first step is to forget about colour values and charts and swatches of comparative tones, shades and hues for now (like that lovely example above which was borrowed from the internet - apologies and if its yours please get in touch for a credit), and understand that pigment-based model colour is visible only because it reflects a certain frequency of light.


It is essentially the type and quality of the light used to illuminate the model colour, the viewing conditions and our own physical visual perception which determine what we see –  It's easy to see that it's not the make of paint, the colour scheme, markings or camouflage pattern which is the absolute essential thing to get our heads around right now.


Understanding and appreciating that our models will look different to our eyes in different places; and that not everyone will see it the same as we do, due to a host of variables and issues is key to working with and photographing model colour.


In an attempt to put some perspective on why we should be a little less worried about colour accuracy right now (we should strive for fidelity and historical accuracy, don't get me wrong) and its impact on our hobby, lets consider three key things:

  1. How do we actually see colour?

  2. Do we remember colour and do we rely on this 'memory' too much?

  3. Is that RLM** the real deal?


1. How do we ‘see’ colour?


It would be tricky to get into the structure of the human eye right now with detail about receptors, rods and cones and pretentious pseudo biology; but it’s not too difficult to understand that because we are all wonderfully genetically different, we all experience colour slightly differently.


In old school terminology ‘colour blindness’, was a misleading term that for me at least, meant that my class mates presumed everything I saw was black and white. 1 in 12 males globally have a colour vision deficiency of either red-green (inability to accurately distinguish between red/green/yellows) or less common blue-yellow (blues and greens). Which means that what I see as a certain tone (light) or shade (dark) of green is not what you might see.


(If you want to start with a level playing field of what your personal colour vision is capable of, have a go at the X-Rite colour vision test by PANTONE*)


So now we know it looks slightly different to everyone, we need to understand how colour is made and that there are two colour systems. Subtractive pigment colour and Additive electronic colour. Both of these don't make the same colour and are mutually exclusive.


To be continued...


(In the second post, we’ll look at colour memory and how it influences and challenges our perception of what we believe is accurate colour and how this is confused by monochrome reference images).



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