Colour Theory: Complimentary and Harmonious
written by Jerrod Hewson
In Part 1 of this BLOG on Colour Theory, we changed the skin tones of the subject so that they were more harmonious to the eye, by reducing the contrast, resulting in a more pleasing image, which was the intent for that photo.
Below is a Colour Wheel with some breakdown features. Lets analyze some of the keys elements of our Wheel so that we may understand how to effectively utilize its power in creating imagery.
The first column to the right of the big wheel shows the colour breakdown from the Primaries (colours that can't be made by mixing two colours together) to Secondary (two Primaries mixed together) down to Intermediate (a mix of Primary and Secondary hues).
The next column of circles show the relationship of the colours to each other such as Analogous (three or more colours side by side to each other) and Complimentary (colours exact opposite to one another) and finally Split Complimentary (when one of the complimentary colours splits into two adjacent hues).
Lastly there is Pure Saturation (Hue, in this example) followed by a lightening and darkening of the Hue (Tint and Shade, in this example)
This BLOG is about the second column (colour relationships).
Because these colours are opposites, they have the most contrast. The higher the contrast, the more separation there is in either the Hue or the value of it. Think of why we print books with black ink on white paper. That high contrast makes the words jump off the page. In terms of colour however, it creates a visual tension in that the eye wants to join the Hues but cannot.
In the image below, Van Gogh has created high tension with just the use of colour alone. The reds and greens fight with each other for dominance and what should be a cool and dim environment, becomes a place of unrest and anxiety.
This is where a Complimentary Colour is substituted for the two colours on each side of it. The result is a reduction in the tension as we move away from such high contrast.
In the image below, Vermeer has created a stimulating image, yet it does not leap out at you as Van Gogh's did, because the Complimentary Split has eased the visual tension. The splitting has pushed the yellows towards the green end and the violets towards the blue, keeping the contrast much lower. Also of note, the tones are all on the cool side and contrast the warmer milk jug, which is the focal point of the image, readable by colour alone and not just the maid's glance.
These are three or more colours directly beside each other on the wheel. Because these hues share a relationship with each other, they are more harmonious and gentler on the eye.
The image below is a study in an Analogous Colour Palette. Here we have a Blue/Violet, Blue, and Blue/Green colour system which gives a feeling of calmness and relaxation.
Choose the right Palette for the right Intension
Because we were aiming for a portrait of beauty (see previous post - Part 1), we wanted to reduce contrast in the image. The grey and yellow tones in the image were of a somewhat neutral pallet, so those blues and reds in the skin (although subtle) created an unnecessary tension that we were able reduce in Photoshop.
The difference complimentary colours have on each other is an effect known as Simultaneous Contrast (illustrated below). The top row has straight Complimentary Colours whereas the bottom row has a similar centre colour, but with a more Harmonious outer square, and therefore the contrast is less on the bottom row then on the top row.
Here are two great examples in photography. The image on the left (by Miles Aldridge) shows an intentionally saturated tonal palette to create tension and unrest. The image on the right (by Joyce Tenneson) shows neutralized muted tones, creating a calm serenity. There is no right or wrong, there is only intention. The colour palette you choose will dictate the effectiveness of your intention.