Color III – Contrasts II

In the previous section we listed the different type of color contrasts available, according to Johannes Itten. They were:

1.  Contrast of Hue

2.  Light-Dark Contrast, or contrast of Value

3.  Cool-Warm Contrast

4.  Complementary Contrast

5.  Simultaneous Contrast

6.  Contrast of Saturation

7.  Contrast of Extension or Contrast of Proportion

That section covered the first four types. Here we continue with the others.

Simultaneous Contrast

In the “real” world, the one defined by physics, objects have no inherent color. Instead, their surfaces contain materials that absorb some wavelengths and reflect others. Our eyes take in the reflected light waves and convert them into signals. Then, our brains translate the signals into color. If we see a green colored object, it is because the surface of the object absorbs all colors except green.

The only way to accurately describe any color is with an instrument like a spectrometer. Furthermore, the only way to accurately perceive a color by eye, with all of its qualities intact, is when it is isolated from other colors.

All colors interact with the colors adjacent to them. Simultaneous contrast is the name given to the effect colors exert on their neighbors. In the case of two colors side by side, the left will influence the one on the right. In turn, the right one will influence the one on the left. They influence each other simultaneously, therefore the term “simultaneous” contrast. The affect is not real in the physical sense but a result of the way the brain and eyes operate in the real world.

Below is a discussion of seventeen effects observed as colors interact. Keep in mind that some of these effects will be minor and difficult to perceive. If they are, keep looking by holding your gaze on the example, simultaneous effects will increase over a short time. In other samples, the effects should be readily obvious. When studying the samples, if you are sure that the examples are not accurate between the samples, copy them, and measure them in your photo-editing program. Use of the HSL scale will help you make the most sense of the comparisons. You will find the samples accurate.

Any color will change appearance when put in proximity of another color.

This is easiest seen using a neutral grey on a colored field. In the example below, the grey patches in the colored field are identical. However, there appears to be variations between them. In the next example, the identical blue-violet squares shift color even more dramatically than the greys did.

You will notice that the colored rectangles of the background between the two samples show a change in intensity. To see this best, move your gaze back and forth from one quadrant on the left to the same quadrant on the right. The colored squares interact with their colored backgrounds, creating a perceived difference between the backgrounds of the samples.

Dark colors and dark values look darker when exhibited against light colors and light values, than if against dark colors and values.

Light colors and light values look lighter when exhibited against dark colors and dark values, than if against light colors and values.

In this pair of samples, the four small squares are identical for each position between the two samples. In addition, the yellow squares on the left side of each sample are of the same hue, just as the blue squares in each sample are of the same hue. The difference between each hue pair is in the luminance/lightness measurements, one is lighter than the other is. Viewing the visual differences in value between the squares in the sample will prove the statements underlined above. For instance, when comparing the light blue squares, the one on the left will appear lighter. When comparing the dark yellow squares show the one on the right to appear darker.

Any color will influence an adjacent color’s hue in the direction of its own compliment. An adjacent color will be pushed toward the other colors direct compliment. Below, the light blue bars tend toward the compliment of the field color. The bar in the orange field picks up a slight bluish tint while the bar in the green field picks up a slight reddish tint.

This second pair of samples shows different bar colors on the same background. This illustrates how the complimentary push works regardless of the color associated with a given background. Looking closely you will notice how background colors are influenced by the bars, just as the bars are influenced by the backgrounds.

A non-complimentary color will create a shift toward its own compliment in the adjacent color’s hue.

This is something of a restatement of the one above. Colors push adjacent colors toward their own compliment. For example, a red field will push overlying colors toward cyan. Direct compliments cannot affect its opposite hue.

Any color will appear to gain intensity, and appear lighter, when exhibited against a black ground.

Any color will appear to loose intensity, and appear darker, when exhibited against a white ground.

These are pretty self explanatory, and commonly known to most image makers. To get the most intensity from a color, show it on a black background. To reduce the intensity of colors, show them on a white background. A mid grey background is used to show the image off in a neutral manner.

Dark colors on a dark complimentary ground will exhibit more intensity than when on a non-complimentary ground.

Light colors on a light complimentary ground will exhibit more intensity than when on a non-complimentary ground.

Any two complimentary colors will exhibit higher intensity contrast when side-by-side, than either color viewed alone.

In a section above it was mentioned that direct compliments do not affect each others hue. This is true but they will affect each others apparent contrast or brightness. The samples below exhibit more contrast when adjacent, than they do when alone in a field.

A high intensity color used with a lower intensity or toned down field of the same hue, will further reduce the intensity of the field.

In both sets of samples the colored field appears to be less intense when the smaller block of higher intensity color is included.

Intense colors next to less intense colors exhibit the strongest contrast when the colors are compliments.

In the two samples below the blue appears more intense on the degraded yellow compliment than it does on the split complimentary green or other colors. The backgrounds vary only in hue, the saturation and value settings are constant between them.

Light colors on light, non-complimentary backgrounds gain strength by use of narrow borders of black or dark complimentary colors. 

Dark colors on dark, non-complimentary backgrounds gain strength by use of narrow borders of white or light complimentary colors. 

In these samples, thin key lines added around the upper set of circles act as an accent, setting the circle off from the background color and strengthening their affect. You can see how the bottom set of colored circles loose strength without the addition of the outline.

Complimentary colors of similar brightness can emphasize one another in a way that causes “irradiation”, or a sense of vibration along their common edge.

Direct compliments used adjacent to one another, when of similar value, create a vibration along their common edge. This is called irradiation. Irradiation can be used effectively to accentuate elements and was commonly used on concert posters during the Hippie era in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Wes Wilson’s work would be familiar to most.

When used with toned down colors the affect is not as great yet the edges seem to begin to blend together making it often a poor choice for use with text. Over use of irradiation is tiring on the eyes and can lead to visual fatigue and even headaches if one has to view a lot of text presented this way.

60's era poster by Wes Wilson.

60’s era poster by Wes Wilson.

Image source

Simultaneous contrast is affected by contrast of extension.

Extension is the same as proportion. Affects can be increased or decreased by changing the proportions of one color to another. A further discussion of extension follows down the page.

Simultaneous contrast creates fluting along sharp edges between colors.

This is best demonstrated by creating a posterized gradation of a color  or a grey step scale. Even though the intermediate steps are not gradated, they appear as if they are. When a sharp edge of light against dark occurs, the eye will perceive the lighter area becoming lighter as it approaches the dark area. Conversely, the darker area will appear to become darker as it approaches the light area.This effect gives the area a sense of having a curved shape or being fluted like a the columns of a Greek marble temple.

If you have ever seen halos along an edge in a photograph, you are seeing a form of intentional use of the fluting effect. The engineers who developed sharpening techniques took a cue from human perception and used the technique in image sharpening solutions.

This fconcludes the list of complimentary contrast effects. What is left is to cover the last two types of color contrasts.

Contrast of Saturation

Think of this as contrast of tones and tints. The contrast can occur for a single hue or among differing hues. Saturation is controlled by using tints (the addition of white to a color), shades (the addition of black to a color), tones (the addition of any mixture of black and white to a color), or by mixing a color with its direct compliment (eventually producing a grey).

Contrast of Extension

Contrast of extension is all about proportions. It is contrast created by controlling the proportion of one color relative to the other. It is used to balance, or counter the balance of an image that is heavily weighted toward a single hue. It can also be used to affect  brightness or intensity of a hue.

Consider that use of color harmonies present a choice of colors. How much one is used, over the others can affect your message and affect the balance of the image. One may seek balance of equivalence through proportionality, or imbalance through disproportionality, making one color more active than the other does. Other contrasts, such as contrast of light and dark, become strengthened or weakened through contrast of extension.

In the red/green samples below, the first appears to be in balance. Both fields are of equal size and exert similar weight. In the second sample, the green stands out due to contrast of extension. The smaller proportion of the green to the red, now draw emphasis to the green squares giving them more importance.

The next set of examples use orange and blue. Orange and blue do not balance well when in equal proportions as can be seen in the first sample. The blue seems to be the more dominant color. If the proportions are changed to 1/3 blue and 2/3 orange, giving the orange more opportunity to exert itself, then the colors seem to balance.

Those who have read the chapters on Gestalt may have felt that the second red/green sample above was not a fair example, because of the influence of proximity and similarity of the green squares. Yes, there is a strength exhibited by the proximity and similarity factors in the sample, but we can still use color extension alone to create the interest. In the two samples below there is only a single figure on the ground and the colors are reversed from one to the other. As can be seen the smaller object still grabs the stage, with the color strengthening its effect.

This brings us to the end of the discussion on color. As stated before, color is a huge subject and this discussion gets below the surface. The intent was to present the same depth of knowledge found in a high-quality color design class found at the college level.

There is always more to learn about a topic. If one wanted to further their depth of knowledge in color, I would suggest reading Johannes Ittens, “Elements of Color”. It is less than 100 pages with examples, and was based upon the classes he taught at the Bauhaus before WWII. This is still the best “first book” on color available.

The next book I would pick up is Josef Albers, “Interaction of Color”. Another short book based upon his work at the Bauhaus and at Yale University. This book is mostly of interest to those applying colors to designs, illustrations and paintings. However, an inquisitive photographer will find the information eye opening. The exercises presented in the text are sun and can be accomplished in a photo editing program or drawing program.

Once the initially promised outline for this blog has been covered other smaller discussions will take place, including covering tangents to the topics already presented. For instance, discussing Albers’ exercises showing how to make four colors appear as three, or three colors appear as four, by manipulating their basic elements.

Next time: The Principals of Art

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.


Color III – Contrasts I

Color – III – Contrasts Part 1

This last color topic will be about color contrasts. The research of Johannes Itten defined methods for devising color combinations. According to Itten, who taught at the Bauhaus, and penned authoritative books on the subject, they color contrasts are:

1.  Contrast of Hue

2.  Light-Dark Contrast, or contrast of Value

3.  Cool-Warm Contrast

4.  Complementary Contrast

5.  Simultaneous Contrast

6.  Contrast of Saturation

7.  Contrast of Extension or Contrast of Proportion

One of the first things to understand is that in any single example, more than one contrast type can be identified. For example, if you are looking to create a complimentary contrast, you will probably end up with a warm/cool contrast in the same sample. Below is an illustration of that idea. Where the yellows and the blue-violets are compliments, they also exhibit a warm/cool relationship.

Warm/Cool Contrast

Warm/Cool Contrast

A more complex example is the one below. The colors are complimentary and exhibit a warm/cool contrast. They are examples of simultaneous contrast (irradiation of edges). They exhibit low value contrast (there is little difference in the values between the colors), and low saturation contrast (there is little difference in the saturation of the colors). Last, there is a contrast of extension in each sample (the proportion of each color balances).

Image displaying multiple contrasts

Image displaying multiple contrasts

Note: The examples in the discussions below may exhibit more than one contrast type; simply concentrate on the one discussed.

Contrast of Hue

Contrast of hue is what you get when you choose to use any of the color harmonies talked about in the last chapter. Using a simple color triad (triangle) or double split compliment (square or rectangle) harmony straight from the color wheel illustrates the point, though any harmony will work.



Contrasts of hue come in degrees from high contrast to low contrast.

The highest hue contrasts are those created using compliments, split compliments, and triangular color harmonies, of full intensity colors. The example below is a triad made up of Red, Green and Blue illustrating a high contrast of hue.

Hue Contrast

Hue Contrast

Low Hue Contrast

Same hue, lower amount of contrast. The affect was created by desaturating the colors.

A lower contrast of hue can be created by desaturation of the same colors (above) or by use of an analogous color harmony like the examle below. Note that the image below, even though it is quite bright, exhibits an overall lower contrast difference between the colors.

Lower Hue Contrast

Lower hue contrast through use of analogous colors.

Fully saturated hues have a greater effect on adjacent colors than less saturated hues, and will appear to have greater contrast difference. In both images below, the example on the left appears to be of higher contrast than the one on the right. Notice also that the left sample of each image seems livelier, while the right may feel more sedate or calming, due to desaturation of the hues.

High Hue Contrast

High Hue Contrast

Low Hue Contrast

Low Hue Contrast

High Hue Contrast - Analogous Colors

High Hue Contrast – Analogous Colors

Low Hue Contrast

Low Hue Contrast – Analogous Colors

Contrast of Value

Remember that value is the relative lightness or darkness of the color used, relative to how it would appear on a grey scale. Value contrasts are those that depend on tinting and shading of the colors. Take a pastel color scheme for example. Its attraction is its lack of color intensity.  All of the background colors have had been tinted by adding white added to the hue. Looking at the trio of samples below, note how the four center squares in each example vary only by value. Each grouping has its own effect, and each has its own usage in design.

Sample of value change in squares

Sample of value change in center square groups.

If you are paying attention to what your eyes are seeing here, you are going to notice that the background colors do not seem to be the same. The sample on the left appears to have lighter background squares than the middle and the right samples. If you have the time, copy the images and measure them in your photo-editing program. You will find each of the three samples is in fact using the exact same background. What you are observing is “color effect” or the influence one color can exert on another.

Light colors on a light background will always appear darker than the same light color on a darker background. Conversely, darker colors appear lighter on a dark background than the same color on a lighter background.

This is illustrated in the sample below, the center group is the same as the center group above. The differences in this case are that the center four squares of each group are the same in each, only the background value changes. You can see that the center squares in the first group appear darker than those in the last group.

Effect of changing backgound value

Effect of changing background value

Here is another example. These samples are entirely different, but the effect is the same. They  illustrate how a dark color will appear lighter on a dark valued background, and a lighter color will appear darker on a lighter valued background.

Posterization uses value contrast as a tool for defining form in an image. By separating an image by the values existing in the image, each band of values can be assigned a color. This could create an interesting rendition of an otherwise boring image.


Sample of a boring image enhanced through posterization

Warm/Cool Contrast

This contrast is based simply on contrasts created when using warm or cool colors. See the Color II chapter for a full explanation. From a psychological standpoint, warm and cool colors become associated with experience. That is, warm colors are associated with excitement, energy and heat. The cool colors are associated with rest, calmness and cold temperatures. Physiologically, when comparing warm and cool colors of the same value or intensity, the warm colors will appear lighter or brighter than their cool neighbor will. They will also seem to stand forward of the cool colors, while the cool seems to recede back into the frame a bit.

This phenomena of standing forward and receding is easiest seen when overlaying a pure red on pure blue, and overlaying pure blue on pure red. It is easy to see how the blue seems to reside behind the red on both halves of the image below. This is not a purely optical trick. Red and blue exist at different wavelengths. If attempting to focus a camera on a red and a blue object, the same distance from the lens, they will require a slightly different point of focus to maintain maximum sharpness. This is not readily apparent in most cameras due to the small viewing surface. If you ever get the chance to use an 8X10 view camera, this will be readily apparent when focusing the objects on the ground glass.

Warm/Cool contrast

This warm/cool contrast example illustrates the spatial effect of colors, where they may appear to exist on different planes. Here the red seems to stand forward of the blue.

This spatial effect, the color advancing or receding, is associated with our perception of colors, and how we relate them to atmospheric perspective. Warm is usually seen as existing forward of the cool on an image plane. The work of Piet Mondrian is an excellent example of the effect.

In the image below, “Color Composition”, the reds seem to exist forward of both the blue and the yellow. I cannot determine if this is shown with the correct edge up. It appears different ways on different sites.

Color Composition

Color Composition, Piet Mondrian.

Image Source

The spatial effect can be overridden by adjusting the intensity contrasts of the image. These next two images show such an example. In the first image both colored blocks are of full intensity, or saturation. The cool color recedes and the warm comes forward.

Spatial effect

Spatial effect – blue recedes, yellow comes forward

Spatial effect reversed

The spatial effect is reversed here, simply by changing the tonality of the yellow.

In the second image, the saturation of the yellow is reduced. If you look carefully, you will see that the cool color now seems to come forward and the warm color recedes.

This also shows up in another of Piet Mondrians Paintings. In “Composition Chequerboard Dark Colours”, 1919, Mondrian purposely reverses the effect, the cool colors come forward of the red. Keep in mind that many of Mondrians works were experimentations of the use of color based upon the recent scientific investigations of perception and color theory that had taken place in the preceding decades. So much of his work was playing with these new ideas to see where he could take the concepts. This is one of the traits of a true Artist, manipulating ideas and creating new ways of perceiving the world.

“Composition Chequerboard Dark Colours”, 1919,

Mondrians, “Composition Chequerboard Dark Colours”, 1919. This illustrates how the warm/cool spatial effect can be reversed.

Image Source

Looking at another example, one can see how the hues used can also affect the spatial effect. In the image shown below the yellow is obviously forward of the background while the full intensity cyan also moves forward of the full intensity cool yellow-green. This is a borderline example and my not be perceived by everyone without effort.

Spatial effect

Spatial effect where both the warm and the cool colors stand forward of the background.

Complimentary Contrast

You know what complimentary colors are; they are colors that exist on opposite sides of the color wheel. This point was covered in the last chapter, Color II. As mentioned before, unless the colors are the borderline hues of magenta and green the compliments will also exhibit a warm/cool contrast.

The illustration below shows samples of complimentary colors.

Complimentary Colors

Complimentary Colors

Mixing complimentary colors will cause the result to tend toward a neutral grey. If you are mixing paints dyes or pigments, this will not work (see the chapter, Color I). Below are 2 photo-editor examples of color blends made using the vertical compliments residing on the horizontal and vertical axis on our color wheel. Notice how they both mix to grey in the middle. Feel free to copy these samples and use the color picker in your editing program. You will find a place in the middle of each blend where the red, green and blue channels all how a reading of 128 at the same time. That is as neutral a grey as one can find.

Magenta Green Blend

Blend of the magenta and green compliments, showing how they mix to a neutral grey.

Red Cyan Blend

Blend of the red and cyan compliments, showing how they mix to a neutral grey.

Mixing non-complimentary colors creates an intermediate of the two mixed hues. Here we see a red to yellow mix.

Red Yellow Blend

This red yellow blend shows how the mix will not tend toward a grey, but the intermediate orange color.

Many painters through history have used complimentary color schemes. Vincent Van Gogh used complimentary colors, usually in split compliments, in quite of few of his works. Below is his “Prisoners Exercising, After Doré’, 1890. This warm orange, cool cyan-blue color scheme is a perfect example of the use of compliments. Next to it is a reproduction of the original engraving by Gustave Doré. Keep in mind there is no reason to believe the colors are accurate in the reproductions.

Prisoners Exercising, After Doré’, 1890

Prisoners Exercising, After Doré’, 1890

Newgate Exercise Yard, Gustave Doré

Newgate Exercise Yard, Gustave Doré

Image Source: Van Gogh

Image Source: Doré

Next Time: Color III – Contrast Part 2

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 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 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.

Elements of Design – Value and Texture


Value is a description of an area’s relative lightness or darkness. Therefore, it relates to a greyscale more than the color wheel. In a sense, value mostly ignores hue and operates only on the level of how much tint (addition of white), or shade (addition of black), a color may have. Value does not ignore hue completely though because all fully saturated hues will fall on a different natural levels of a value scale (grey scale).

Values help create forms and differentiate space or distance. Gradation of values within a space or shape create forms, or the illusion of volume and mass.

Values can be loosely predicted by looking at the color of the object. Pure yellow will fall near the top of a grey scale, while pure blue-violet will fall near the bottom of the grey scale. All other pure hues fall somewhere in between. Looking at the two images below, the second image is a grey scale conversion of the first. Note how light the value of the yellow circle is compared to the others, also note how little difference there is between values of some of the other colors. This affect is used in B&W to remove any emotional and psychological reaction to color. In return, the viewer responds more directly to the formal constructions of the image and the message.

Today, most photographers are not consciously aware of the colors in their photos. Whatever colors are in front of the camera are of no major concern. There is no attempt at controlling the palette of the image, so unfortunately, value control is also of less concern.The fact is, value can impart as much, or more, emotional response than color. It is the main component of black and white photography. High value or high key images have a light, pure feel to them. By manipulating values through exposure control, a high-key or low-key image can be created. A great example for tone is the work of Edward Steichen.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was one of the first commercially successful fashion photographers. He is considered the first modern fashion photographer and worked for large ad agencies. Hired by Condé Nast, he shot for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines from 1923–1938, the most famous and highest paid photographer in the world during that time. He won an Academy Award for a documentary film in 1945 and became the head of the Photography section of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Below are examples of his work. Note the use of tones to create drama in the images. His work had a major influence on both the commercial and film industries through WWII.

Edward Steichen, "Norma Shearer, 1935"

Edward Steichen, “Norma Shearer, 1935”

Image Source

High valued or high-key images illustrate lightness, airy, open, friendly spaces and aid the impression of confident success. In this image of model Norma Shearer, one can see how the high key tonal use helps elevate the impressions of high culture, wealth and well-being. The placement of her head in front of the mirror subliminally places a halo around her head. This halo becomes a crown when ones vision registers the crystal ornamentation truncated at the top of the mirror. This is an instance where the figure-ground can reverse in the black shape within the mirror. It seems to stand forward of her head at times.

Edward Steichen, "J P Morgan, 1903"

Edward Steichen, “J P Morgan, 1903”

Image Source

Dark value or low-key images usually have a heavy or oppressive feel to them. Steichen has used low key lighting and dark tones in presenting us with a menacing image of financier J P Morgan, one of the most feared and hated men of his day. Note how the arm rest on the right side of the image takes on the appearance of a knife.This was not entirely unintentional and shows one approach to strengthening the message of an image.

Edward Steichen, "Margaret Horan, 1935" for Vogue

Edward Steichen, “Margaret Horan, 1935” for Vogue

Image Source

Using heavy darks in concert with vibrant whites adds drama.This image of Margaret Horan, shot for Vogue Magazine, is a study in shapes, lines, forms, space and tones. Steichen could easily have used an overall darker palette but would have lost the drama and elegance of the image. A high-key treatment would have become too much of an abstraction dismissing the pose and human element. Consider also how the image would change just by shifting the camera 1 foot to the left. The near tangent of her upper thigh would have disappeared into the rectangular shadow on the rear wall. The elegant line created by her left side would no longer show, resulting in a less glamorous image.

If you are observant you will also catch the implied line traveling from the statuette down both arms to the piano. Only to be turned back by the right triangle in the white space created by the curved shape of the piano top and her arm.


Texture is created by contrast changes along the surface of an object. It is a byproduct of the angle of the light and the roughness of the surface of an object. The illusion of texture in a photograph is created by small, localized changes in contrast. If a surface is rough, there will irregularities on the surface. As long as the light illuminates the object from aside or rear angle, it will create a shadow and highlight on the irregularities. This creates changes in value or color, higher in the highlight side and lower in the shadow side. These differences in local value, contrast, are what we perceive as texture on the object.

A smooth surface has no irregularities so it exhibits little localized contrast and so appears to have no texture.

Texture gives an object a sense of being real and tactile. Presented correctly, texture becomes a quality we can “feel” without actually touching. The brain sends a feeling to receptors in the fingers and we experience a “sense” of the texture. Coarse textures exhibiting high localized contrast will have a rough or severe character. Smooth textures exhibiting lower localized contrast will have a calm or sensuous character.

These images by Edward Weston (arguably the most influential photographer of the 20th Century) exhibit entirely different textures. The first image, titled, “Church Door, Hornitos, 1940 is a good illustration of how localized changes in the surface create the feeling of rough texture. Notice that the light is coming in from a high, side angle. Without the right lighting, texture becomes nothing more than the tonal changes we see in the shadow area of the door.

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Image Source

The second image, titled, “Nautilus, 1927” illustrates how a lack of texture enhances the illusion of an objects smooth surface on the two-dimensional print. Using rather flat lighting enhances the affect by filling in any local texture. This reduces contrast changes even more.

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Image Source

The same applies to Weston’s, “Pepper No. 30, 1930”.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Image Source

Unrelated to texture, notice how the figure-ground relationship of the upper portion of the shell itself can change, resulting in an ambiguous form. At any one moment, the upper hollow of the shell seems to take a shape, projecting forward, toward the viewer. At another moment it reverts to a literal reading of the shape and recedes behind the base of the shell. Both of these photographs are illustrative of photography’s ability to transform an objects image from a record of an object to a sensual, organic form created in the viewer’s mind. The shell might remind one of a toadstool or a phallus The pepper imitates a human form rendered into a twisted shape and is mirrored in Weston’s most famous nude of Charis Wilson.

Continue reading

Elements of Design – Space


Space is the interval of distance or area around or between objects. Space on a page is 2 dimensional, but 3 dimensional space can be implied by overlapping elements, changes in size, using perspective, using diagonals or using color and tones. Space contains background, middle ground and foreground. One can perceive space as positive (figure) or negative (ground) depending on its use.

In relation to the Elements of Design, positive space describes the object or subject within the frame. Negative space describes the area around the object or what remains.  Space also refers to the area that a form or shape contains.  Use of space is most recognizable in 3 dimensional objects including sculpture.


In the image above, the positive space is the blue squares or figure, the negative space is the dark orange ground. The space an object appears to reside in can be influenced by its placement within the frame. An object placed higher in the frame appears to reside farther from the viewer than an object near the bottom of the frame. In a case like that, the brain creates its own perspective accepting the higher object as more distant.

Title unknown

Title unknown

Image Source

In this image by Paul Stand, title unknown, we see effective and expressive use of space. If you first view the image as an abstract, the dominant feature in this image is the flat expanse of water stretching into the distance, filling nearly 2/3 of the frame. By focusing on the water, and not the trees, the water and fog appear as a higher-valued (lighter toned) figure or positive space. This allows the brain to see the image as an abstract of darks and light and makes for an interesting tone map.If you find it difficult to perceive the image in this way try squinting your eyes until they are about ½ closed. By removing the detail, the forms, tones, shapes and spaces become more apparent. You can use this technique with most any image. I have also included a tone map of the image just below. The tone map, by itself, is interesting enough, visually, to use as an illustration.

Viewing the Strand image by focusing on the trees and spit of land create a more literal reading of the image and enhance the sense of place and time. The bases of the trees are flooded and convey a sense of isolation and vulnerability within the expanse of the water. By placing the trees to the far left of the frame, Strand has isolated them in their space, further affecting the impact. This impact would have been greatly reduced had he included more land to the left or less water in the fore ground.

Space as we can now see has expressive qualities that enhance our purposes.

Using small spaces between objects can connect them through proximity.
Surrounding an object with lots of blank space or white areas will draw attention to the object.
Overlapped objects or perspective creates a depth of space.
Unequal spacing between similar objects is more dynamic than regimented grouping.
Blank spaces or white areas also create a visual place of rest for the eyes, just as rest intervals in music are the quiet intervals in between notes.

It should be evident by now that most of these elements of design, and the Gestalt elements, do not singularly occur on their own. In most images, you will observe multiple elements at work in concert with one another. This means that attempting to create an image based solely on any one element will be next to impossible.

Next Time: Elements of Design – Value and Texture

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 – Shape and Form


Shape describes two-dimensional space. The actual defining of shape is done by other elements of design: line, space, value, or color. In combination, these other elements form the shapes we see in a work. Shape occurs when tone or color fills the area between lines. Shape is the brains attempt at resolving an object as recognizable (logical) to one’s experience. In the two-dimensional world, there are three simple geometric shapes – the square, the triangle, and the circle. All other geometric shapes are some combination of these three.

There are also more the more complex organic shapes we see in natural and man-made objects, such as the silhouette of leaves, trees, cars or other everyday objects. Shape is the foundation of form.


Form is the three-dimensional counterpart to shape. Shape is to form as a square is to a cube. In the three-dimensional world, the basic geometric forms are cube, sphere, pyramid, cylinder and cones. Form is shape with dimension or volume. To change a shape to a form, dimension must be created by the addition of tone or color transitions within the shape. This results is the illusion of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional space.

In the first decades of the 20th Century photography was moving away from Pictorialism, the trend of photographers attempting to imitate painterly effects in photos, mostly through soft focus and romantic subject matter.  Some of the influences drawing photographers away from Pictorialism were Dadaism, Cubism and a move toward images in sharp focus. It was during this transitional time that Edward Weston took this early masterpiece of composition, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921. This is clearly a transitional piece borrowing from Pictorialism and touching on elements of gestalt. It also seems to  echo some of the modernist notions of space that were explored in the two decades leading to the production of this image.

This is an image that uses shapes almost exclusively in its design. The framing of the image presents the viewer with an ambiguous space where we don’t know if the central dark form is projecting forward into the space or receding toward the left due to the the figure-ground flip-flops. Is the woman, Betty Katz, leaning against the wall? Or is she looking at it head-on, while being separated from another space on the far side of the projection? A third reading could be of the entire wall being perfectly flat with an abstract design painted on it. The woman’s organic dark form counters the geometric lines and lighter tones of the space. Her size and placement within the frame balance the otherwise expansive mass of shapes and tones.

Edward Weston, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921Tone map of Westons, Attic.

Image Source

In this image, Weston is obviously playing with the shapes as geometric planes in space. Texture is non-existent and  any volume in the image is generated by tonal changes determined by the angle of the surface.  The tone map indicates a simple, yet appealing set of lines and tones.

Below is another famous photograph,  this time by the Master Photographer Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946. Even if you don’t know that Stravinsky was one of the 20th Centuries greatest composers, the shapes within the frame leave no doubt that he was connected to music in some way.

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Tone Map

Tone Map

Image Source

This is a very graphic design and just an outline of the shapes would be interesting. Here is another instance where creating a tone map breaks the image down into a collection of shapes without any form or other information. The arrangement of shapes within the frame is interesting for its own design.

Below is another Newman portrait, this time of Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director/producer and master of the psychological thriller and suspense genre in the middle of the last century. Newman, master of the environmental portrait, has him sitting quite far forward so that his body seems detached from the head in a way that the head seems magically attached yet ready to roll down front by its own weight. Notice the simplicity of the image with only 3 objects in the frame: the forms of the body and head, and the background shape. The graphic quality of the image being obvious.

Alfred Neuman, Alfred Hitchcock, date unk.Image Source

Returning to Weston, during the middle of his career Edward Weston’s work often concentrated on finding the “essence” of is subject matter. His work by then had evolved from the Pictorialist soft focus image to the sharp, maximum focus practices of the F-64 Group. Now everything possible was in focus and finding the composition leading to a deep connection with the subject was paramount. Form now became important when photographing a subject and the details found in the local contrasts of objects became important. The essence of the object itself became the subject, as well as what the image by itself could elicit emotionally.

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Image Source

In this shot of sand dunes in on the Central California Coast, we see a study of lines, shapes, forms and textures. Weston is using nature’s ever-present design as a subject of its own. This image can be viewed in numerous ways. It can be seen as a realistic study of the land, with all of its details sharply delineated from the foreground to the mountains in the far distance. Alternatively, it might be viewed as a counter-comment to a realistic reading of the image, abstracted into nothing more than a study of shape, form, line, and tone. Still others may see it in a spiritual sense, as an equivalent to a deeply felt personal event or other experience from life. Regardless of Weston’s original intent, he was highly aware of the formal elements of design within the ground glass and used them to his advantage.

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Image Source

The image above, Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern contains some of the elements we have discussed over in the past few posts. See how many of the items you can pick out.  Include any Gestalt elements you might recognize. As a starting point realize the photo is a picture of leaves in front of a white wall and the shadows they cast on that wall.

Don’t think that all of this discussion about line, form, shape etc. is just “old bunk” that no longer applies. Practiced every day, the Elements of Design still hold true and in the worlds of design, publishing, photography and Art. Familiarizing yourself with, and utilizing these concepts, but not letting them control your vision, is one of the best ways to improve your photography. As an exercise, spend the next few photo outings looking for designs in nature or at man made locations, they exist all over. When you find them, spend some time considering the best way to frame them in a way that the design becomes  part of the subject of the image. You will find that over time, your brain will start to connect more with design and you will be utilizing it naturally without effort. The end result will be improved vision and better photographs.


Next Time: Space


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.