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.


Gestalt – Grouping – Continuity and Prägnanz


Continuity is when the grouping of one set of elements easily associates to another. In essence, the eye moves through one element group and into another. The eye takes the path of least resistance. In the figure below left, the eyes will most likely see two X’s grouped together. This is the easiest path for the brain to make sense of because there is little discrimination required for the interpretations. If instead, one focuses on the apex of the angle, they will perceive a chevron, or they may perceive a diamond if they focus in the middle of the form.

In the second graphic, we see a line diverge into two paths. The line creating the least change in the path is the one perceived as being strongest. The path diverging from the norm is the one with the least influence. In this instance, the brain will let the eye follow from the curve in yellow, through to the orange, as opposed to continuing to the straight yellow segment. Continuity occurs easiest along curved or straight lines.

Continuity can also be demonstrated as extending lines that don’t exist, or implied lines. Since the brain wants to continue in the path of least resistance, it may fill in where nothing appears to complete an implied line (a form of closure). Continuity is seen in logo graphics like the one below where the crossbar of the H continues out to the leaf shape.


The Principle of Prägnanz says that when presented with visual information, the brain will attempt to organize ambiguous information into the simplest form possible. What this is saying is that the brain will process the visual information received into as symmetrical  an image as possible, composed of the simplest shapes possible, and using the least number of shapes possible. So, since the brain’s initial reading of a confused or complex image will be the least complicated possible, any following readings will attempt to deconstruct more complex structures within the frame.

The first illustration in the Continuity discussion above demonstrates this well.  In that instance we see 2 X’s in the initial reading (or maybe a diamond or chevrons) but it is harder to process the whole of the design all in one glance.

The fact that the brain attempts to organize into the simplest shape possible is demonstrated below.

The image shows what appear to be mostly white circles within a black grid pattern. One, the largest white form, takes on more of a square shape. In reality, all of the shapes were made from placing white squares over the grid. Because the smaller shapes do not provide enough information to the brain, it sees them as circles. Circles are a simpler shape than squares. In the case of the largest shape, we see a square because it crosses more than one line in each direction. This provides the brain with more information allowing it to create the more complex square shape.

Another example is the one above. Prägnanz states that the simplest reading is that a circle is positioned behind a square as seen in the first position below, regardless if that were the case in reality. Without Prägnanz we might instead initially perceive the second or third readings below.

Prägnanz goes a long way in explaining the numerous sighting of the vestige of the Virgin or other religious icons in out of the way places like someone’s bathroom window, or the image of a human face on the surface of Mars. Again, we find the brain trying to resolve what it sees into something logical and familiar. A bit more discussion on this can be found by looking up Pareidolia which is a form of Apophenia.

Gestalt – Conclusion

Now that we have covered the principles of Gestalt Perception, it is necessary to point out that these principles do not often occur in isolation. One will not usually exist by itself but in conjunction with one or more of the other principles. Note also that there will be times when the principles do not manifest themselves at all in a given work.

As Richard Zakia states in his book, “Perception and Imaging

“You must not… think of [gestalt principles] as separate, for they are related and work together to facilitate seeing. Visual elements that are close together, that are similar, that form a smooth contour and that allow for closure can produce effective composition.

“Keep in mind, however, that many excellent pictures have been taken that do not conform to the Gestalt [principles] of perceptual organization. Examples of such pictures are those with strong emotional appeal and those that delve into the unconscious. “

Also remember that Gestalt is not considered completely scientific. It tells us what happens, but it doesn’t tell why or how it happens. Research has shown that the elements above happen across a broad population so they can be assumed as reputable guides. Their importance may not be so obvious at this moment, but once we cover the next two major sections, the Elements of Design and the Principles of Art, Gestalt’s  resultant influence  will become obvious. Simply put, the principles of Gestalt help explain why the  Elements of Design and the Principles of Art were able to be developed in the first place. Gestalt is an underpinning of most historical two-dimensional art and the rational basis of much of what has been taught in art school over the past few centuries.

Next time: Elements of Design – Line

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.

Gestalt – Grouping – Proximity, Similarity, and Closure


In physics, any two objects will cause a certain attraction force on each other. They call this gravity. A similar force exists in electromagnetic fields called magnetism. In Gestalt, the attraction force between shapes is Grouping. Just as in the sciences, the attraction force will not necessarily move the other element though there will be an implied, but real, attraction between the two.  Grouping is a major element in Gestalt and can be influences the visual center of an image.

The different types of grouping are: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure and pragnanz. Each is discussed below.

Consider that much of this topic of Gestalt may seem overly simplistic, but it helps to explain the actions of the unconscious mind during the act of viewing and you will see later how it supports the Principles of Art and Elements of Design. If you find it difficult to see the visual relationships described, try closing the eyes and clearing the mind as much as possible, then pay attention to what the eye and brain first perceives in the first second or two when viewing an image.


Proximity grouping is the influence objects within close proximity assert on each other. Looking below you will see how a grid of evenly spaced objects is nothing more than a grid of evenly spaced objects. It has balance and logic. Therefore, it is comfortable to the brains and the eyes can rest on it easily.

In the second image, we still have a grid of objects, but the brain accepts each set of double rows as being a single group of objects, though of the same shape. There is still a balance in the logic; it is just a bit more complex. Proximity also works for dissimilar groups of objects, as shown below.

Proximity of shapes affects the visual relationships of shapes within a frame, but the illustration may be a bit too simplistic. In the illustration below we will mix it up just a bit to reinforce the notion.

We now see 3 shapes of blue and 1 shape of grey. How does your brain relate them into groups? Though it is a different color and shape, the strongest reading seems to be that the square is grouped with the 2 overlapping blue shapes. The single blue shape on the upper left is likely grouped with nothing.   Now, consider the grouping in relation to the whole page. A secondary reading may appear grouping all 4 object together when contrasted to the type and page layout. This occurs because there is no framing around the 4 objects presenting them as separate from the balance of the page. This changes their reference and logic, so the brain may see them in either light.

Having too many things in close proximity can affect the  image negatively. This leads to incoherence, not allowing for the eyes to find a comfortable point of focus.


Similarity grouping is the influence that objects of like shape can assert on each other. Repetition of shape within the frame creates associations. In the illustration below grouping is mostly by shape. Even though the columns are separated they still associate in the mind. Because they are similar in size and color the grouping seems to be weak.

Color can be used to reinforce Similarity. Most people would see the arrows in this illustration below as being of two different groups based upon their color alone. There is no proximity change needed to induce the effect.

Look at the more complex examples of Similarity in the next two illustrations.

In the  illustration above , the similarity is easy to pick up due to the sameness of the objects in the frame. The lines seem to be one group and the triangles seem to be another.

Now look at the same frame without the triangles. Can you pick out any groupings now? It isn’t as easy because all of the objects are similar. You might see the two adjacent lines on the left side (running diagonally to the right) as being a group due to the similarity of angle. You might also see the two lines running from edge to edge as grouped. There are a number of ambiguous groupings and what you do make out, appears depending on your momentary point of focus.

Comparing the two illustrations show some of the strength in using similarities to create groupings within the frame. Similarities can take the form of colors, as we have seen. They can also be shaped by textures, values, tones, movement, symmetries, etc, as seen below.

Similarity of shapes in an image produce repetition. Repetition in an image can be as strong an element in imaging as it is in music. But too much repetition can become boring, so the best repetition also has an amount of variation included.If you listen to classical music you will have often heard titles including the term, “Theme and Variations”. these are pieces where material structure is repeated while the form changes by changing the melody, rhythm, orchestration, etc. singly or in combination.

How many similarities, or repetitions, can you pick out in the portrait of three peasants by the German photographer, August Sanders? What variations do you find?

Young Farmers. From "People of the Twentieth Century." August Sanders, 1914

Young Farmers. From “People of the Twentieth Century.” August Sanders, 1914

Image Source

Keep in mind, too much similarity can cause quick exhaustion on the part of the viewer. Attention needs be paid to placement in this case. For example, an image of a single texture throughout the frame will be boring, while taking swaths of differing shapes or colors of the same texture, arranged in a pleasing way may not.


Closure is the brain completing what is suggested or implied. It takes the information available and completes it, though not all of the information is presented. Looking at the first illustration below you will perceive a circle, yet it is not a circle but a series of arcs. To make it a true circle the spaces between the lines need to be filled. But we perceive the figure as a circle because the brain performs closure for us. The brain is familiar with the shape and accepts it as whole. The graphic in the second illustration show two forms of grouping at work. At one level, the four triangles group into a star like form due to similarity. However, a square also appears where no square actually exists; the corners do not join. Again, the brain creates a closure of the form (The logo of the World Wildlife Fund seen on the page about figure and ground is an excellent example of closure at work). Notice in the third example how the suggestion of the square is less pronounced. This illustrates how proximity of elements will influence closure. Closure is most noticeable when the elements are near each other. The effect can dissipate with distance or if other shapes intervene. The resultant form suggested can also change. Notice in third illustration how the closure is beginning to describe a circle instead of a square.

Look at another example of closure below. In this case, the frame around the objects cuts off those portions of the blue circle extending outside of the frame. Yet the brain performs completion on it, making it seem whole. In reality, the shape never existed as a circle; it is the same as the green object in the lower right of the frame. Even knowing this will not keep the brain from closing the shape. At times the green shape will seem completed as a circle, with the bottom of the circle protruding through the ground and out of view.

The closure seen above is accomplished by the brain, yet the image creator can make their own closure. Looking at the first image below, notice how the jagged lines do not seem to close with one another. Also that the similarity grouping seems weak.  Yet in the second instance, simply connecting the lines creates closure for us. In this instance, the addition of connecting lines enhanced the closure of unrelated elements and reduced the effect of similarity even more. You will also find there are times where a line from one shape creates an implied closure for another unconnected line.

Symmetry and asymmetry will respectively strengthen and weaken the effect of closure.

In the five groupings above, the first and last show only a little closure due to asymmetry even though they have a strong proximity relationship to their neighbor. The middle three groupings exhibit a certain amount of closure grouping due to their symmetry as well as their proximity.

The image frame influences closure. The frame can both complete the closure, or allow the closure to flow outside it’s boundaries.

The brain will accept continuation of the forms well outside of the frame. Looking at the image of jean Arp by Alfred Neuman, it is easy for the brain to finish the shape of the head. Again, logic born of experience comes into play with the brain completing objects based upon what it knows.

Jean Arp, by Alfred Neuman, 1949

Jean Arp, by Alfred Neuman, 1949

Image Source

Next Time: Continuity and Prägnanz

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.