Project: Building a library of colours

Project – Building a library of colours

Exercise  2: Primary and Secondary Colours

Scenes or parts of a scene which are each dominated by a single one of the primary and secondary colours.

As a result of this exercise, I found that I was going round quite entranced by colours and being much more aware of them.  The green of grass, shrubs, flowers attracted me the most.  I always enjoy walking on our local Common and being amongst flowers but I found myself more sensitised to all the different variations in the colour green. I  recently visited an allotment, and two different types of gardens which were included in a local ‘garden safari’.  When I came to process the images I found that, in some senses I had captured too much green because it was harder to see the variations. I mentioned this recently to Jose Navarro on a Study Day and he told me that green is the hardest colour for photographers to capture because it absorbs so much ultra violet light.

When visiting The Cult of Beauty Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently I was struck by the vivid red and oranges captured by some of the painters such as “Faustine’, Maxwell Armfield and “Midsummer”, Albert Moore. I also became much more aware of modern gaudiness, particularly in colurs used on shop fronts and how some colours and combinations almost hurt my eyes. I’ll write more about this when I come onto Colour Relationships.

The Photography Course Supplement gives a comment from Johannes Itten that colours, ‘have a mystical capacity for spiritual expression without being tied to objects’ (p.3). Vittorio Storaro, the Italian Cinematogropher,  is inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s theory around the psychological effects of colours.  In an interview  in the film, ‘Visions of Light’ Storaro explains that  he first worked with all sorts of light, working with opposites.  He then describes how he used colour in the film, ‘The Last Emperor’.  Red is the beginning when Emperor Pu Yi  is cutting his wrists – red, the colour of blood when we are born. The colour orange is used to denote the warm colours of family. Yellow is used as the colour of identity when the little Emperor flings aside the drapes and his subjects are kneeling before him.  Storaro says he first uses green in the film when the tutor comes on his green bicycle and brings knowledge. The green of knowledge has been a ‘forbidden’ colour for the Emperor until now. I thought ‘The Last Emperor’ was a wonderfully made film but hadn’t realised until now how my emotional responses might have been manipulated in that fashion.

I’m wondering as well how much Storaro might have been basing his typology on the Taoist theory of The Five Elements, which led to its associated colour cyle and the use of five main colours, black, white, red, green and yellow. According to one website ( yellow was associated with royalty; the yellow earth and the yellow river which runs through China. The colour red represented happiness and joy and only the Emperor’s family could have homes with red walls and yellow roof tiles.

Colour Wheel

The Colours

Any quotes I give below are from the Photography Course supplement unless I state otherwise. I’m also comparing the colours with the knowledge that colour in photography is achieved in a different way from that in paint and also that colours take on a different aspect when placed next to other colours – something that will come in later exercises.

There has also been an interesting debate on the OCA student forums concerning whether or not women perceive colours ‘better’ than men. This was a question I asked myself when preparing for this part of the Course (see previous post). There was a link to a colour perception test on  A perfect score is 0.  I scored 8 which isn’t too bad really and my weakness is around the blue/green spectrum.  My husband tried it and he scored 12, with his weakness being around the blue/red spectrum. We do disagree on whether colours are blue and green and it looks as if his perception is better on that than mine.  I hate to think he might be right on this occasion!


“Expressively, yellow is vigorous and sharp, the opposite of placid and restful”

a)    metered exposure

b) minus .5 exposure

c) plus .5 exposure

To my eyes the plus.5 exposure more closely matches the colour yellow in the wheel. I have to take into account though that there is some green in the foreground and background which will also affect how the colour is seen.


“Orange is the mixture of red and yellow. red  radiates energy, yellow radiates light. Orange is a colour very much associated with radiation.”

The Common was carpeted with freshly fallen pine cones the other day and, for the first time, I saw how orange it was underneath the needles. The colour rapidly changes to brown though after only a few days.

a)    Metered exposure

b)   Minus .5 exposure

c)    Plus.5 exposure

I think the exposure as metered is probably the nearest although I’m disappointed that I haven’t captured enough of the orangeness I could see. Probably this bricked-in arch is the nearest orange to the colour wheel I’m using.  I checked the saturation and it is more on the red than the yellow spectrum.


‘Red advances towards the viewer. It has considerable kinetic energy” .

The red on the scanned-in wheel is really more towards brown I think so the red strawberries don’t really match. The red poppy below may be a better match because it is more toward the crimson red that I can see on the wheel in the Handbook. Of course it is against the small green leaves which, again, affects perception of the colour.


“Violet is a mixture of blue and red. It has rich and sumptuous associations.”  I know this is just a working van, not in natural colours, and it doesn’t exactly look sumptuous but, when I saw it at the local garden centre, I immediately thought, “That must be violet!”. To me, though, the violet on the colour wheel looks more like the colour I would term purple.

a) metered exposure

b)   minus one exposure

c) plus one exposure

It was a bright day and I think that the minus exposure brings out the colour more vividly. I think, thought, that the van is closer to red than it is to blue (the two colours which combine to produce violet).

The following isn’t one of my best images by a long way but I’ve played around with it in an attempt to match violet.


“Expressively blue is, above all, cool…..It suggests a withdrawn, reflective mood”(p.6)

To me, the blue on the colour wheel is a deep blue and I get an intense rather than cool feeling from it.

a) metered exposure

b) minus .5 exposure

c) plus .5 exposure

There isn’t a great deal of difference between the metered and the minus .5 exposure but I think that, on balance the minus .5 exposure is nearest to the blue on the wheel.  The green grass and pale dogs might also be affecting perception so I’ve cropped just the sky to see how that looks.

the blue on the wheel is what I would have called ‘royal blue’.  I’ve looekd at images I already have and cropped the towel from this one

I played around with it in photoshop in attempt to make the colour deeper (you can see that the blue hue now appears in the walls) It’s nearer but still not that deep, soft blue which appears on the wheel.  I thought that the domes of the churches in Santorini, Greece, might be nearer but they aren’t.


“Green is the colour of growth”.

a) as metered

b) minus one

c) plus one

It looks as if the plus1 exposure is the nearest  I think that, probably, plus.5 might have been nearer though.

One thing I discovered about photographing greenery is that , whereas I can see all the different shades of green with my eye there can be a tendency in the actual photograph for them to blur together and become somewhat amorphous. Maybe green does need to be placed next to another colour for it’s richness to be truly appreciated.


I haven’t found it easy to specifically match the colours on the wheel provided but, even, so the exercise has made me much more aware of colours in general. Changing the exposure affects the intensity of colour and perception of colour alters according to their relationship to other colours. Light/time of day also affect colour.


Glassman, A, 1992, “Visions of Light. The Art of Cinematography” , American Film Institute

‘Basic Colour Theory’, OCA Photography Course Supplement

One Comment on “Project: Building a library of colours”

  1. Gilly says:

    This is really interesting, Catherine. I’d seen The Last Emperor but hadn’t realised how the colours were being used – absolutely fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s