06. Reverse Ground Theory and Subtraction of Color


This week’s assignment will be focusing on two color effects we will be creating using a reductive pallet, which is a fancy phrase for using a limited amount of hues in a body of work. The objectives you’ll achieve are:

  1. An art piece demonstrating the reversed ground theory.
  2. An art piece demonstrating the subtraction of color principle.

Through this assignment you’ll reinforce:

  1. A better understanding of how the colors, of your choice, are made and how the optical effects of that color can be changed and controlled.
  2. Building on this understanding, how to manipulate your selected colors to create both the reversed ground and subtraction of color effects.



When we are talking about reverse ground in the context of color theory, as it means something very different in other fields, we are essentially make three colors appear as two. How we do this is by using two fields of color, essentially large background rectangles, and floating a shared swatch, which is a smaller rectangle of color, in the center each one of these fields.

This probably sounds pretty confusing simply written out. Here is a visual example of what a successful outcome of this project is:

Although the two center colors are the same color, they read visually as different colors since they are floating on background colors that change our perception of the center color’s properties. I’ve found over the years this project is most easily accomplished successfully by deciding on a foreground color first, and then selecting the background colors it is to be floating on based upon how you mixed up the foreground color. (An example of understanding analogous relationships.)

If you look at this example above carefully you’ll see the pinkish violet that is foreground color is primarily made up of magenta and violet, which are each of the background colors. When the pinkish violet color is floated on a violet background it has the optical effect of diminishing the violet in the foreground color so our eyes read it as being a bit more of pink than it actually is. The same is true for the set on the left hand side. You can test this by using a small mask to cover up the background entirely and looking at just the foreground color. (To make small image mask, just use some plane white scrap paper and cut a small square out of the middle of it. This way the background is fully blanked out and you can again see the foreground color for what it truly is.)

To help clarify a bit more, below is a link to a short video (approx. 3 min.) that uses the same principles with Adobe Illustrator. Although the medium is different than our acrylic paints, the concept and execution is the same so please don’t worry about the software aspect. I like to use this video since it quickly shows how the color choices are worked through in a way that is no so quickly accomplished in paints.

By the end of this project you should have three colors in total, two back ground and one foreground, that look as if the project has four colors being used.


Now that you understand how to make three colors look like four through the reverse ground theory, we are going to explore how to do a somewhat opposite effect. For our subtraction of color project we will take two different foreground colors and make them appear the same based on the ground they are floating on. We will be taking four colors and making them appear to be three.

Since again, this can be a hard concept to explain via the written word here is another short video that I think helps demonstrate it well:

  1. On your 18″ x 24″ paper, please create two pieces for submission. One should demonstrate reverse ground and one should demonstrate color subtraction.
  2. Please use as much of the 18″ x 24″ picture plane as possible. These kind of optical effects tend to work better in larger formats.
  3. As usual, please post a photo your results in the comments section of the corresponding post, along with your thoughts on how the exercise went. (What went well? What did you struggle with? If you couldn’t mix a color and had to use one straight out of the tube, why do you think that was? Etc.)
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