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 I – Models

This is my third attempt at writing the color segment. Color is a huge topic and much of it is out of the scope of this discussion. I finally realized that much of what I wanted to discuss was beyond the idea of color as an element of design. Therefore, for the following segments we will initially review three of the many color models in existence to insure that the reader understands which ones are relevant. Following that, we will discuss color harmonic schemes then follow up with color contrast schemes. In the last section, there will be a quick discussion of the psychology effects and cultural symbolism inherent in color.

Color Models

There are multiple color models, some based upon perceptual models while others are based on technical models. Each has a different purpose and fills the needs of a particular discipline. I will briefly describe the three most commonly occurring models you will run across in the art and photography world. I will show brief examples of each model and describe when they are used.

The three models are RYB (Red, Yellow, Blue), CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key or blacK), and

RGB (Red, Green, Blue). Most editing programs allow you to choose which model you wish to work in. For instance, a designer might import a photo in RGB then export to CMYK if they need to output to an offset four color printing process.

There is a secondary concern in CMYK and RGB models. The concern is “Color Gamut”. Gamut is another technical model illustrating an ink’s, a pigment’s, a paper’s, or an electronic display’s entire ability to reproduce color spectrums. Gamut is beyond the scope of this discussion but receives mention here because it is of importance to output.


Painters and illustrators working in non-digital methods commonly use the RYB model. Traditional theory has it that when mixing paints or pigments the primary colors are Red, Yellow and Blue. From these primaries, one should be able to mix all other hues. In truth, painters will need separate greens as a basis for mixing hues, a necessity based upon the purity of hues mixable with the primary pigments. When attempting to create greens using only the primary RYB hues, the green mixtures only create dirty colors and are of little use to the painter.

It should be apparent that the RYB model is of little use to the photographer. The reason it is mentioned here is that if you start searching for information on color models or color wheels, you need to pay attention to the primary colors on the model under discussion. If you are trying to relate your knowledge about RGB models while someone is writing about an RYB model it can cause confusion. RYB works great with colored light, but fails with technology’s imperfect pigments.


The CMYK model is important when outputting to a medium like paper. If you take a magnifier and look at most any magazine advertisement photograph, you will see a grid of dots – called a rosette. This grid consists of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black dots. The intensity of the color of individual dots is controlled by the amount of each color needed in that area of the image. Black adds intensity and contrast.

Rosette Pattern

Rosette Pattern taken from a 4 color print job

Image Source

In inkjet or “giclee” printing, the same color model is used, but dots are applied in a different way. Instead of the organized pattern you would see in the offset printing found in magazines, the software in the printer disperses the dots in a controlled mist creating a “stochastic screen” pattern. This pattern is mostly random and invisible, except in very big enlargements. Even then, the viewer must get very close to the large print to see the pattern. The human eye will not resolve the pattern at a normal viewing distance.

Stochastic Screen Patterns

Stochastic Screen Output Patterns from a CMYK Test

Image Source

The reason for using a CMYK model has to do with the limitations involved in mixing inks. Inks by their nature are not opaque as are pigments, and a mixture of RYB inks do not give satisfactory results. They are weak and do not appear true to nature. CMYK colors on the other hand, produce natural colors and better contrast on the page.

If a photographer is still using traditional darkroom printing method, they will be using a CMY model – no K. This is the same model, but instead of working with dyes or pigments, they are mixing light colors with a color enlarger. This model was used to make Type C prints, Type R prints, and Ciba-Chrome prints in the “old” days.


The RGB model is the one most familiar to the digital artist or photographer. Most digital cameras operate under this model for input. This is also the model LCD displays operate under. Below is a close up of an LCD display showing the dot pattern of the screen.

RGB Screen Detail

Detail of an RGB computer monitor

Image Source

Something all artists and photographers should be conscious of is that because of Gamut issues an LCD monitor, even when color balanced, will not exhibit the same colors and intensities as a print. When viewing an image on paper, the colors we perceive form by light bouncing off the pigments or dyes on the paper. When viewing an image on the monitor, the colors generated by the LEDs are emitted by the  glow of Red, Green, and Blue sub pixels.

The Elements of Color

Color consists of hue, saturation and brightness (HSB) for the purposes of this discussion. HSB, may also be referred to as HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) or HSV (hue, saturation, value) depending on the model used within your software. HSV is the most commonly used color control in a photo-editing program. Because photographers are mostly concerned with the RGB model, other color models like CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) and the Munsell color system, etc., are not part of this discussion.

Hue is unadulterated color of full intensity, meaning the hue is at its maximum strength. A hue does not contain any black or white mixed in. Hues are assigned values in the H (Hue) field in the color controls of your imaging software. The number in the field is a numerical value indicating degrees between 0 and 360. Both 0 and 360 indicate the top position of the circle.

Moving clock-wise the primary and secondary colors are as listed at these co-ordinates:

  • Red – 0
  • Yellow – 60
  • Green – 120
  • Cyan – 180
  • Blue – 240
  • Magenta – 300
  • Red – 360
One version of an RGB Color Wheel

One version of an RGB Color Wheel with color co-ordinates from a color picker

Red, listed twice here, reminds the reader that the 0-point and the 360-point co-exist in the same space. Note that in the two images below, the color picker shows 0 in one and 360 in the other for Hue, yet both indicate the same color in the RGB, CMYK, and the LAB fields.

Color picker 1

Color picker indicating red at both 0 and 360.

The two images below show hues resulting from changing the value in the Hfield to 270 and 90 degrees respectively. These are both full intensity colors existing on opposite sides of the color wheel, making them complimentary colors.

Color picker 2

Color pickers indicating complimentary colors existing 180 degrees apart

Tints are the result of mixing white and a hue. If you look closely for the cursor in these examples above, you will see a portion of a circle at the upper right corner of the color picker field. This indicates to us that the chosen color is fully saturated. If the cursor is moved horizontally to the left, the resulting color is a tint of that hue. Below we have moved the cursor half way to the left. You can see that the resulting colors (circled in yellow), are now lighter than the ones above. You could say that the colors chosen are pastel or nearly so. If the cursor moved all the way to the left, no trace of the original hue is left. The resulting color will be white.  Tints are always lighter than the original hue.

Color picker 3

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when tinting color.

Shades are the result of mixing a hue with black. On the color picker below notice the position of the cursor has shifted half way down, vertically, from its original position in the upper right corner. The colors are now shades of the original hue. By adding black, we have darkened or degraded the hue. If taken to the extreme by moving the cursor all the way to the bottom, we would no longer have a hue, only black. Shades are always darker than the original hue.

Color picker - shades

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when shading colors.

Tones are the result of mixing a hue with grey or any amount of both black and white. If the cursor is moved diagonally, regardless of the angle, the resulting color is a tone. Looking at the images below the adjustment is both to the left toward white, and down toward black. Note how the colors are now degraded and flat in character. A toned down color looses intensity.

Color picker - tone

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when making toned colors.

Last, notice that any time you move the cursor all the way to the bottom, the result is black. Any time you move the cursor all the way to the left the result is a grey, black or white.

To sum things up:

  • Hues are pure, fully saturated colors
  • Tints are desaturated by adding white to the hue.
  • Shades are desaturated by adding black to the hue.
  • Tones are desaturated by adding grey (both black and white) to the hue.

The samples below are of a color wheel created in program named Colorimpact from It appears to be a color planner for designers. Unfortunately, the wheel itself does not comply with any standard model I am aware of. Try to align primary colors in a triangle, you can’t. the closest model I can comprehend from it is the RYB model that painters would use. I have used it here only to show the effects of adding white, grey, or black to the hues. In my opinion these are not representative of accurate color wheels.

In the example below, the  wheels show fully saturated colors at the outer edge of the wheel. The hues become less saturated as you progress toward the center of the wheel. The first wheel illustrates tints (adding white), notice how all colors tinted to the maximum value become white. The second wheel illustrates shades(adding black), notice how all colors in this sample, when shaded to the maximum value become black.

Tints, Shades and Tones

Three color wheels illustrating Tints, Shades and Tones

The last wheel illustrates tones. In this sample, equal amounts of white and black are used resulting in a maximum change to a medium value, neutral grey. By adding increasing amounts of white to the third wheel, you will eventually end up with a sample looking like the first wheel. Similarly, if you add increasing amounts of black, you will end up with a sample looking like the second wheel.

Next time: Color II – Harmonies

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Elements of Design – Value and Texture


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

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

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

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

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

Edward Steichen, "Norma Shearer, 1935"

Edward Steichen, “Norma Shearer, 1935”

Image Source

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

Edward Steichen, "J P Morgan, 1903"

Edward Steichen, “J P Morgan, 1903”

Image Source

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

Edward Steichen, "Margaret Horan, 1935" for Vogue

Edward Steichen, “Margaret Horan, 1935” for Vogue

Image Source

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

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


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

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

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

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

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Image Source

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

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Image Source

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

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Image Source

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

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