Elements of Design – Color II – Harmonies

Heirarchy & Harmonies

It is true that most amateur and many professional photographers will never have occasion to relate to, or arrange the colors in their images. Where much of the following information will come in handy is when seeking out abstracts or a scene where the colors become the composition, and content is secondary. It will also be important for a studio photographer planning scenes and tabletop setups.

This is not to dismiss the topic of color. It is still part of a well-rounded compositional background and should be understood at a basic level. Knowing when and how to adjust your colors will always prove to be a useful tool. Consider the color temperature tool, it works on the basis of a rectangular, double split compliment (see below). The Temperature control changes the Yellow-Blue balance (black arrows), while the Tint control changes the Magenta-Green balance (white arrows).

Rectangular Dual Split Compliments.

Rectangular Dual Split Compliments. This Yellow-Blue and Magenta/Green color scheme is used by color temperature correction tools in photo editing programs.

Ultimately color harmonies are easy to understand and visualize because the patterns the relationships make on the color wheel are composed of basic geometric shapes.


Colors have a hierarchy – Primary, secondary and tertiary.

The most basic colors, and the foundation of the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) color model are the primary colors of red, green and blue of course. The secondary colors are cyan, magenta and, yellow. Secondary colors are those resulting from mixing equivalent amounts of any two primary colors as seen below where the primary colors overlap.

RGB Light Projection

Red, Green, and Blue primary colored lights projected on a white wall. Where they overlap with another color, they create a secondary hue of Cyan, Magenta, or Yellow. Where all 3 overlap they create white light.

The tertiary colors are the results of mixing equivalent amounts of any primary and an adjacent secondary color. Tertiary colors are called by a hyphenated designation composed of their primary-secondary mix. For instance: yellow-green, magenta-blue, or cyan-blue. The only exception is the red-yellow combination named after a popular citrus fruit – orange. The other combinations do not have names that everyone would associate with a given hue. For instance, when we say purple, some people imagine a blue-violet while others imagine a lavender color. Other names like fuchsia or chartreuse are too vague for accurate use. Orange is the only tertiary color providing a common experience


RGB Color Wheel

RGB Color Wheel with co-ordinates.

Image Source

In the illustration above, the primary colors reside 120 degrees apart, beginning at zero. The secondary colors reside 120 degrees apart, beginning at 60. Tertiary colors reside 30 degrees to either side of any primary or secondary color.


There are seven basic color harmonies.

  • Monochrome
  • Warm – Cool
  • Diads
  • Analogous
  • Compliments
  • Triads
  • Split Compliments
  • Tetrads – Quadratic – Square or Rectangular – Double Split Compliments (all meaning the same thing)

Relationships between harmonic colors, like the complimentary a relationship, can be difficult to envision using the software color pickers. The best cure for this is to relate to an accurate color wheel like the one we will be using in this discussion. Above we have indicated the primary and secondary colors with their corresponding co-ordinate numbers from an RGB color picker.

Under most circumstances, harmonies are relative to a chosen target color. For instance, you may want to find out which colors harmonize with green. So green becomes the target color. Whichever color you choose as a target, you apply harmonic schemes to, in order to find out which harmonies fit the need.

Monochrome colors schemes are those where one hue is used in differing shades, tints or tones. The simplest example of a monochrome image is any black and white photograph. This detail of interior window of the then abandoned Uniroyal Tire  Building, near Los Angeles, CA. This image is a good example of the use of line, shape, tone, form and similarity.

Tension, Uniroyal Building, Los Angeles,  © Guy Manning

Tension, Uniroyal Building, Los Angeles, © Guy Manning

Image Source

Another example of a monochromatic image would be a sepia toned image or Cyanotype like the one below. Cyanotypes are one of the first alternative processes one would usually learn in advanced photography classes. Watercolor paper is coated with a solution mixture of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. The paper becomes light sensitive and is allowed to dry in the dark. An image is produced by exposing a film negative to the paper under a strong light, or by placing items on the paper in a strong light. Once the exposure is made the paper is “developed” in a water bath. The resulting image is a monochromatic cyan-blue. like the example below made by Anna Atkins as part of a study of algae in the late 19th Century.

Cyanotype - Anna Atkins

A photogram of Algae, made by Anna Atkins as part of her 1843 book, “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions”, the first book composed entirely of photographic images.

Image Source

Another example of monochromatic color use is this color image by Louisiana photographer, David Chauvin entitled, “Cypress in Mist II, Lake Fausse Point”. Though not strictly composed of tonal variations of one color, it is close enough to consider it monochromatic. Aside from the color, I love the way the shapes compose within the frame. The gestalt similarities working between the two grouping pair of Cypress tree’s, help draw the eye’s interest and unify the forms.

Cypress in Mist II, Lake Fausse Point

© David Chauvin, “Cypress in Mist II, Lake Fausse Point”

Image Source

Contrasting to these dark hulking forms, the brighter sunlit portions of the mist and water surface move across the bottom of the frame. These shallow diagonals add just the right amount of motion and tension to a space that would have become boring had the lights appeared in flat horizontal strips. In turn, the vertically hanging moss counters the shafts of light, which rhyme the same tonal and color range as the sun lit mist and water. These harmonies mask, but do not totally obliterate the details hidden in the background allowing the background details tell secrets of their own. Spatially the scene feels like part of a stage setting for a ballet. The background appears as the same flat plane one would see in an backstage screen. The dead still water surface appears as a dance floor, and I almost expect the “Wilis” from the ballet Giselle float across the space. The overall effect allows the viewer’s vision to wander the stage, but not too far from the major players. They still impose their presence through an aloof , monumental presence .

Warm – Cool colors are colors that the mind associates with temperature. Reds and yellows are warm hues, while blues and purples the cool hues. The border colors, greens and magentas, may be perceived as either warm or cool depending on how far off their center point the hue is, and the perception of the viewer.

Warm-Cool color boundary

Warm and cool color boundaries run approximately across the middle of a color wheel. The lines here, approximate the indistinct horizontal boundaries.

As a general guideline you could draw a line horizontally through the center of the color wheel above to divide the warm colors (top half of circle) from the cool colors (bottom half of circle).

Dyad color harmonies use only two colors located in close but non-adjacent proximity on the color wheel. Dyads would skip one intermediate hue. They may both be tertiary colors, or one primary and one secondary color. To determine Dyad colors one could look at an analogous layout and remove the central color. The examples below show target colors of a dyad. The color samples match the first and third color wheels choices.

Dyad Selection on color wheels

Dyad Selection on color wheels

Dyad Color Harmony

Dyad Color Harmony from first wheel

Dyad Color Harmony

Dyad Color Harmony from third wheel

It should be noted that there seems to be a confusion over the term Dyad. Some consider a dyad to be a color harmony made up of 2 colors existing opposite each other on the color wheel. This describes complimentary colors, so I am using dyad in the sense of non-contiguous analogous colors. This is also how I remember it from what I learned at Art Center, so I am sticking with the term.

Analogous colors, or an analogous color schemes, are colors that exist in close proximity to the target color on the color wheel. Analogous describes any color within about 30 degrees of the target color. Another way to think of it is the next primary, secondary or tertiary color that sits adjacent to the target color on the wheel. Analogous color schemes are the least complicated for just that reason. You do not have to go far from the target color to find them. About the only drawback in using analogous color schemes is that they tend to be boring. However, that may be used to advantage in the right circumstances, for instance a calming light blue color scheme in a nursery.

Below shows an RGB color wheel indicating analogous color schemes. In essence, any colors falling within the V shape would be analogous to the target color in the center of the V.

Analogous Color Harmonies

Analogous Color Harmonies on color wheels

These next two illustrations are the analogous combinations indicated in the first and second color wheels above. The first shows analogous colors from the red-magenta, through red, and into the yellow-orange range. The second example show a cool set of purple, blue and cyan. In both sets the colors exist adjacent to one another on the color wheel.

Analogous Color Harmony

Analogous Color Harmony based upon first wheel

Analogous Color Harmony

Analogous Color Harmony based upon second wheel

Since we are dealing with uneven numbers of colors, I have included a medium grey in the left over quadrant. Medium grey will compliment any color or color combination This is because grey is a mixture of all three primary colors equally. In this manner, the examples will not be influenced in an adverse way by an outside color.

Another of David Chauvin’s images serves to illustrate how grey can serve as a compliment to any color.

© David Chauvin, "Early Autumn"

© David Chauvin, “Early Autumn”

Image Source

Here we see a color palette made up of muted orange, yellow-green and grey. By themselves the orange and yellow-green analogous combination would lack interest and contain a slight overall warm feeling. With the inclusion of the greys, this feeling changes. The greys create a perfect compliment for offsetting the analogous palette, and move the whole toward a much cooler feel. A balance within the color palette is now obtained melding with the positioning of elements in the frame. A harmony is achieved that could not exist otherwise.

Complimentary colors are colors that exist opposite each other on an accurate color wheel. Complimentary color harmonies are the second least complicated of color schemes. Think of them as the Yin-Yang, the opposing forces, the contradictory colors. Complimentary combinations will always have one warm color and one cool color unless they both fall within the indistinct boundaries between warm and cool.

Complimentary Color Pairs

Complimentary Color Pairs will always exist on opposite sides of the color wheel.

Below are two illustrations using complimentary combinations taken from the second and third color wheels above. Notice that the first shows colors that ride on point where they are difficult to call cool or warm. You may feel the lavender color is cool while someone else feels it is warm. You are both correct because everyone perceives color a little differently.

Now look at the second set. Here the lavender has moved more toward a cool purple-blue and the green is moving toward a warmer yellow-green. From this, it should be evident that when one shifts warm or cools the other shifts in the opposite direction.

Complimentary pair, indistinctly warm or cool.

The colors in this complimentary pair are not so indistinct in their warm/cool relationship.

For those using pigments or paints, mixing complimentary colors can be useful for producing neutrals or toned down hues. This does not work when mixing colors on a computer. We are still hindered by the RGB palette and must suffer that restriction. For example, try to make a brown by combining green and red. You can do it with paints but not with a computer. Find the browns in the tones and shades of the orange area of a picker color picker.

Triad color schemes are composed of 3 colors equally spaced around the color wheel. These schemes will contain colors that are all primary colors, or all secondary colors, or all tertiary colors, due to the equal spacing between them. Notice how the indicators make up an equilateral triangle on the illustration below. The color samples are taken from the first and third wheels. Again, the grey panels are to balance the rectangle without interfering with the rendering of the colors.

Triad Color Harmonies

Triad Color Harmonies, the first is all primary colors, the second is all secondary colors, the third is all tertiary colors.

A triad of primary colors.

A triad of secondary colors
A triad of secondary colors

Split compliment color harmonies are when, instead of using the color directly opposite the target color, those analogous to the opposite color are used. For instance, in the first example below, the target color is red. The compliment for Red would be Cyan. However, the split compliments fall to either side of the compliment. This leaves the split compliments being a blue-cyan and a green-cyan. Think of the word split meaning there is a gap between two color elements.

Looking at the illustrations below you will notice that in split compliment harmonies, the splits will always be tertiary colors regardless whether the target is a primary or secondary color. If the target is a tertiary color, the splits will be one primary and one secondary color. The color samples come from the second and third wheels.

Split compliment color harmonies seem softer, less bold, than the triads.

Split Compliment Color Harmonies

Split Compliment Color Harmonies

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Double split compliment harmonies may also be referred to as tetradic or quadratic harmonies, or by square and rectangular harmonies. They all mean the same thing. There are four color components made of two sets of complimentary colors. All double split compliments involve use of four hues.

It is probably easiest to refer to split compliments using the terms “square” or “rectangular” compliments. Latin based names are not easily processed by English speakers.

Square double split compliments consist of any four colors that exist 90 degrees apart on the color wheel, forming a square when connected. Some think of them as two pair of complimentary colors perpendicular to each other. The first color sample is based upon the first wheel, the second is based upon the second wheel.

Double Split Compliment Harmony - Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony - Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony - Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Square

Rectangular double split harmonies consist of two pairs of compliments skipping one color between each pair. Think of them as complimentary dyads. A rectangle is formed when connecting the colors on the wheel. The color samples are from the second and third wheels respectively.

Note that the rectangular compliment combinations seem to be softer than the square compliment combinations.

Double Split Compliment Harmonies - Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmonies – Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmony

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmonies - Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Rectangular

You have probably already noticed the harmonies are all relative to geometric shapes, lines, triangles, squares, rectangles. This makes it easier to visualize them when needed.

Next Time: Elements of Design – Color – Contrasts

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.


Elements of Design – Color I – Models

This is my third attempt at writing the color segment. Color is a huge topic and much of it is out of the scope of this discussion. I finally realized that much of what I wanted to discuss was beyond the idea of color as an element of design. Therefore, for the following segments we will initially review three of the many color models in existence to insure that the reader understands which ones are relevant. Following that, we will discuss color harmonic schemes then follow up with color contrast schemes. In the last section, there will be a quick discussion of the psychology effects and cultural symbolism inherent in color.

Color Models

There are multiple color models, some based upon perceptual models while others are based on technical models. Each has a different purpose and fills the needs of a particular discipline. I will briefly describe the three most commonly occurring models you will run across in the art and photography world. I will show brief examples of each model and describe when they are used.

The three models are RYB (Red, Yellow, Blue), CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key or blacK), and

RGB (Red, Green, Blue). Most editing programs allow you to choose which model you wish to work in. For instance, a designer might import a photo in RGB then export to CMYK if they need to output to an offset four color printing process.

There is a secondary concern in CMYK and RGB models. The concern is “Color Gamut”. Gamut is another technical model illustrating an ink’s, a pigment’s, a paper’s, or an electronic display’s entire ability to reproduce color spectrums. Gamut is beyond the scope of this discussion but receives mention here because it is of importance to output.


Painters and illustrators working in non-digital methods commonly use the RYB model. Traditional theory has it that when mixing paints or pigments the primary colors are Red, Yellow and Blue. From these primaries, one should be able to mix all other hues. In truth, painters will need separate greens as a basis for mixing hues, a necessity based upon the purity of hues mixable with the primary pigments. When attempting to create greens using only the primary RYB hues, the green mixtures only create dirty colors and are of little use to the painter.

It should be apparent that the RYB model is of little use to the photographer. The reason it is mentioned here is that if you start searching for information on color models or color wheels, you need to pay attention to the primary colors on the model under discussion. If you are trying to relate your knowledge about RGB models while someone is writing about an RYB model it can cause confusion. RYB works great with colored light, but fails with technology’s imperfect pigments.


The CMYK model is important when outputting to a medium like paper. If you take a magnifier and look at most any magazine advertisement photograph, you will see a grid of dots – called a rosette. This grid consists of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black dots. The intensity of the color of individual dots is controlled by the amount of each color needed in that area of the image. Black adds intensity and contrast.

Rosette Pattern

Rosette Pattern taken from a 4 color print job

Image Source

In inkjet or “giclee” printing, the same color model is used, but dots are applied in a different way. Instead of the organized pattern you would see in the offset printing found in magazines, the software in the printer disperses the dots in a controlled mist creating a “stochastic screen” pattern. This pattern is mostly random and invisible, except in very big enlargements. Even then, the viewer must get very close to the large print to see the pattern. The human eye will not resolve the pattern at a normal viewing distance.

Stochastic Screen Patterns

Stochastic Screen Output Patterns from a CMYK Test

Image Source

The reason for using a CMYK model has to do with the limitations involved in mixing inks. Inks by their nature are not opaque as are pigments, and a mixture of RYB inks do not give satisfactory results. They are weak and do not appear true to nature. CMYK colors on the other hand, produce natural colors and better contrast on the page.

If a photographer is still using traditional darkroom printing method, they will be using a CMY model – no K. This is the same model, but instead of working with dyes or pigments, they are mixing light colors with a color enlarger. This model was used to make Type C prints, Type R prints, and Ciba-Chrome prints in the “old” days.


The RGB model is the one most familiar to the digital artist or photographer. Most digital cameras operate under this model for input. This is also the model LCD displays operate under. Below is a close up of an LCD display showing the dot pattern of the screen.

RGB Screen Detail

Detail of an RGB computer monitor

Image Source

Something all artists and photographers should be conscious of is that because of Gamut issues an LCD monitor, even when color balanced, will not exhibit the same colors and intensities as a print. When viewing an image on paper, the colors we perceive form by light bouncing off the pigments or dyes on the paper. When viewing an image on the monitor, the colors generated by the LEDs are emitted by the  glow of Red, Green, and Blue sub pixels.

The Elements of Color

Color consists of hue, saturation and brightness (HSB) for the purposes of this discussion. HSB, may also be referred to as HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) or HSV (hue, saturation, value) depending on the model used within your software. HSV is the most commonly used color control in a photo-editing program. Because photographers are mostly concerned with the RGB model, other color models like CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) and the Munsell color system, etc., are not part of this discussion.

Hue is unadulterated color of full intensity, meaning the hue is at its maximum strength. A hue does not contain any black or white mixed in. Hues are assigned values in the H (Hue) field in the color controls of your imaging software. The number in the field is a numerical value indicating degrees between 0 and 360. Both 0 and 360 indicate the top position of the circle.

Moving clock-wise the primary and secondary colors are as listed at these co-ordinates:

  • Red – 0
  • Yellow – 60
  • Green – 120
  • Cyan – 180
  • Blue – 240
  • Magenta – 300
  • Red – 360
One version of an RGB Color Wheel

One version of an RGB Color Wheel with color co-ordinates from a color picker

Red, listed twice here, reminds the reader that the 0-point and the 360-point co-exist in the same space. Note that in the two images below, the color picker shows 0 in one and 360 in the other for Hue, yet both indicate the same color in the RGB, CMYK, and the LAB fields.

Color picker 1

Color picker indicating red at both 0 and 360.

The two images below show hues resulting from changing the value in the Hfield to 270 and 90 degrees respectively. These are both full intensity colors existing on opposite sides of the color wheel, making them complimentary colors.

Color picker 2

Color pickers indicating complimentary colors existing 180 degrees apart

Tints are the result of mixing white and a hue. If you look closely for the cursor in these examples above, you will see a portion of a circle at the upper right corner of the color picker field. This indicates to us that the chosen color is fully saturated. If the cursor is moved horizontally to the left, the resulting color is a tint of that hue. Below we have moved the cursor half way to the left. You can see that the resulting colors (circled in yellow), are now lighter than the ones above. You could say that the colors chosen are pastel or nearly so. If the cursor moved all the way to the left, no trace of the original hue is left. The resulting color will be white.  Tints are always lighter than the original hue.

Color picker 3

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when tinting color.

Shades are the result of mixing a hue with black. On the color picker below notice the position of the cursor has shifted half way down, vertically, from its original position in the upper right corner. The colors are now shades of the original hue. By adding black, we have darkened or degraded the hue. If taken to the extreme by moving the cursor all the way to the bottom, we would no longer have a hue, only black. Shades are always darker than the original hue.

Color picker - shades

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when shading colors.

Tones are the result of mixing a hue with grey or any amount of both black and white. If the cursor is moved diagonally, regardless of the angle, the resulting color is a tone. Looking at the images below the adjustment is both to the left toward white, and down toward black. Note how the colors are now degraded and flat in character. A toned down color looses intensity.

Color picker - tone

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when making toned colors.

Last, notice that any time you move the cursor all the way to the bottom, the result is black. Any time you move the cursor all the way to the left the result is a grey, black or white.

To sum things up:

  • Hues are pure, fully saturated colors
  • Tints are desaturated by adding white to the hue.
  • Shades are desaturated by adding black to the hue.
  • Tones are desaturated by adding grey (both black and white) to the hue.

The samples below are of a color wheel created in program named Colorimpact from http://www.tigercolor.com/. It appears to be a color planner for designers. Unfortunately, the wheel itself does not comply with any standard model I am aware of. Try to align primary colors in a triangle, you can’t. the closest model I can comprehend from it is the RYB model that painters would use. I have used it here only to show the effects of adding white, grey, or black to the hues. In my opinion these are not representative of accurate color wheels.

In the example below, the  wheels show fully saturated colors at the outer edge of the wheel. The hues become less saturated as you progress toward the center of the wheel. The first wheel illustrates tints (adding white), notice how all colors tinted to the maximum value become white. The second wheel illustrates shades(adding black), notice how all colors in this sample, when shaded to the maximum value become black.

Tints, Shades and Tones

Three color wheels illustrating Tints, Shades and Tones

The last wheel illustrates tones. In this sample, equal amounts of white and black are used resulting in a maximum change to a medium value, neutral grey. By adding increasing amounts of white to the third wheel, you will eventually end up with a sample looking like the first wheel. Similarly, if you add increasing amounts of black, you will end up with a sample looking like the second wheel.

Next time: Color II – Harmonies

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.