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.