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.

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