Project : Colour Relationships – Exercise 3

Project: Colour Relationships

Exercise 3 : Colour Relationships

a) Combinations of primary and secondary colours

Taking into account the harmonic relationships suggested by J. W  Von Goethe, with the brightness values of yellow 9, orange 8, red and green 6, blue 4 and violet 3.

Red and green should be 1:1.  The red phone box appears quite dominant in the scene, but I’ve taken into account the green of the tress and grass as well as  the litter bin.

Orange and blue should be 1:2.  Sainsbury’s shopping trolleys are orange and blue something that had escaped my attention before.  I cropped this image to attempt the correct ratio.  I’m still not sure I’ve captured it, although the blue handles are larger in the foreground which does  bring the blue more to the forefront.

Macro shot of a viola which I was sure was violet.  To me, a flower, being from nature should contain natural harmonic colour relationships. The ratio, according to Goethe, should be 1:3. It’s almost there but not quite.

b) Colour combinations which appeal to me

This shop window  shouted out to me as I went past it a few weeks ago.  It was the orange which drew me.  It doesn’t fit the ratio of course, despite the several shades of blue which can be seen, so there is a marked imbalance.  It’s just a splash of hot colour .  The lettering at the top of it looks near to violet so primary and secondary colours are all there.

Blue and orange hues again and I think the ratios are there.  I like the more muted tones. The rust is more towards the yellow spectrum and the blue has some green with white I think.

I went into one of our local charity shops this morning and immediately noticed the wonderful orange boots.  I admired them and their owner agreed and said she thought they went really well with her tights.  What a combination – certainly eye-catching.

There is more green than red here, although the  red of the poppies is bright. wooden fence has reddish tones as well and provides balance.

I like clear, bright colours on the whole although, since starting the Course, I’ve come to appreciate more muted/de-saturated colours as well.

July 2011

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

Part 3: Colour – Initial thoughts and reading around colour

Part  3 : Colour – Some Initial thoughts and reading


I set out on Part 3 with with some questions in mind.  How do we see colour; do different people have different responses to it; what happens when people are colour-blind and how might this affect them as photographers, also how is our emotional response to colour affected by our culture as well as our physiology? I read around it all and did some research but am now attempting overall to keep it as simple as possible for myself.  This curiosity about colour and colour perception was intensified when I read about the difference between saturation and brightness in the workbook whilst preparing for the first exercise on colour.  I decided I need to understand more.

The effect of colour

Colour works on 3 levels. They are: Visual – this is the objective, immediately obvious level; Expressive – the emotional level, evoking sensations that are often subjective and non-visual; Symbolic – the cultural level, where certaincolours and combinations are associated with things that we have been brought up with. (Basic Colour Theory, Course Supplement). Individual colours have a variety of cultural associations such as national colours (as in flags), and the use of white (weddings in Western cultures and funerals in China).  The same colour may also have different associations within the same culture at any time, e.g. red for danger with its connotations of blood, but also for romance/passion.

The earth’s colours change from one season to the next. Grasses change their hue and sunsets differ in intensity and hue.  Generally winter flowers are more subdued than summer flowers in both blossoms and leaves. This means that colours can be used differently to evoke a feeling of one particular season or another.  Nature routinely uses several color combinations. Flowers tend to have mono-chromatic, analogous and complementary colour schemes. Leaves are more apt to use a mono-chromatic or analogous colour scheme.

Analogous, split-complementary and complementary colour schemes are often displayed in sunsets and sunrises. The ocean, lakes and other bodies of water appear monochromatic or analogous unless a sunrise’s or sunset’s hues intermingle with them. Warm colours are associated with sunlight, heat, excitement and happiness. They have more ability to be luminous than cool colours do. Warm colours advance visually , for example red in the forground can enhance  sense of depth. Yellow, the brightest of colours, has obvious associations with sources of light.  Cool colours tend to recede into the distance, for instance blue recedes more than yellow.  Its primary symbolism derives from its occurrences in nature – the sky and water. Manipulating adjacent hues can make any colour register as either cool or warm.

Colour Perception

The human’s eye ability to distinguish colours is based upon the varying sensitivity of different cells in the retina to light of different wavelengths. The message is passed to the optic nerve and then on to the brain. Humans are trichomatic which means that the retina contains three types of colour receptor cells – cones of which there are about 6 to 7 million.. One type is most responsive to light that we see as violet (wavelength around 420 nm) and this is distinct from the other two which are closely related both genetically and chemically. Red cones are most sensitive to light we see as greenish yellow (wavelengths around 564 nm) and green cones are most sensitive to light perceived as green (wavelengths around 534 m).

The other type of light sensitive cell in the eye is the rod, of which there are about 120 million in the eye.. The rods are more sensitive thant cones, but sensitive to low light, not to colour and they perceive images as black, white and different shades of grey, responding better to blue light than red.  The cones, which require a greater intensity of light, are sensitive to colour.  When the light is bright enough to stimulate the cones the rods play little part in vision.  In dim light, when the cones are understimulated, leaving only signals from the rods and this leads to a ‘colourless’ response.  These effects are described in the Kruithof curve that describes the change of color perception and ‘pleasingness’ of light as a function of temperature and intensity.

“…the color of an object is a complex result of its surface properties, its transmission properties, and its emission properties, all of which factors contribute to the mix of wavelengths in the light leaving the surface of the object. The perceived color is then further conditioned by the nature of the ambient illumination, and by the color properties of other objects nearby, via the effect known as color constancy and via other characteristics of the perceiving eye and brain.”


Combinations of cones are stimulated when we see perceive a colour that has a wavelength between  that of the primary colours red, green and blue this results in our being able to detect light of all colours in the visible spectrum.  I’m thinking of a rainbow here.

So far I have understood that  the perception of colour is mainly due to the absorption and scattering properties of whatever we are looking at being different from the incoming wavelengths of light that illuminate it.  There are other effects in the mix.  For example, we see green leaves as green because leaves and other green plants use chlorophyll to change light into energy.  Chlorophyll absorbs the red and blue colours of the spectrum and reflects the green. The cones and rods of the eye pick up on this particular wavelength and frequency of green and send the message to the brain.

Differences in Colour Perception

One website that I looked at states that  if we lose our eye sight the body adapts and receives colour rays through our skin, but I couldn’t find any other references to that.  Another website described a lady who lost her eyesight and then became a painter.  It quoted her as saying that she painted from memory and distinguished the different colours of paint by dipping her fingers into the paint because each colour had a different texture which she could feel.

I wanted to find out whether everyone sees colours the same.  Certainly my husband and I often disagree as to whether a colour is blue or green, M. Freeman (2007) also comments that many people have difficulty in judging the colour of blue precisely.  Certainly, as I have become older I’ve needed more light to see clearly, so presumably age affects the rods and cones in the eyes and therefore their response to wavelengths of light.  I found a brief report on a 2010 Project, “Do you see what I see”, which was presented at the California State Science Fair.  The hypothesis was that people see colours differently, especially as they age. The method involved an LED light box, consisting of two different coloured lights, red and green, each separately controlled. The red light was set to a constant colour as measured by the DMM and subjects were asked to adjust the green LED in such a way as to produce a third colour. The voltage of the green LED was then measured to determine an individual subject’s colour perception.  The DMM reading of each subject was placed on a graph and plotted by age and gender. It was shown that in both genders, as a person ages, the DMM measurement gets higher, which means they see colours as duller.  In particular, the colour perception of men decreases significantly past the age of 45.  Although colour perception also changes in women as they age it is not as significant as men. The results also show that male and female colour perceptions differ from each other slightly when younger.  This was an interesting experiment but, unfortunately the Project Summary didn’t give information on how many people were tested and the other necessary information to establish whether the experiment was scientifically valid.

People who suffer from colour-blindness have less numbers of particular cones than normal which means they get colours confused. There are different types of colour blindness  the most common form being red-green.  I am particularly interested in the effect of colour blindness on photographers and how that impacts upon their photography.

Colour-blind Photographers

One of my fellow students linked me to a relevant Flickr site which I found fascinating.  One of the discussion threads was, “ what makes a colour-blind photographer or hobbyist different from others?”

Photographers commented on such areas as basing photographs on feelings and composition and not colour; more easily understanding the abstract nature of black and white; being more sensitive to differences in tone and that being colour-blind helps to get tones and contrasts just right.

I liked the effects of their images.  With many of them I could see a difference in the tones, in both black/white and colour which I find difficult to describe – something slightly duo-toned/de-saturated, maybe more on the low-key side and, in the black and white, more of a hint of sepia which I imagined might be due to a particular use of filters.  Even with HDR effects I found the images more calming to my eyes. I’ve joined the group because I find the images very interesting and maybe in time and with more knowledge/experience I’ll be able to work out the differences more precisely.


This has been a brief summary of my reading around colour to give me a starting point on Part 3. I’m going to return to this as I carry out the various Exercises, particularly the use of colour in photography and how this can be used symbolically and to evoke particular emotions/sensations.

1st June 2011


 “Basic Colour Theory”, Photography Course Supplement

Freeman, M, The Photographers Eye, 2007

Wilcox, M, “Blue and Yellow don’t make Green”, 1987, Artways, Perth, W. Aus

Wolfrom,J,  “Color Play”, 2000, C & T Publishing, California