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.

Triad

Square

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.

Posterization

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.