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The Art of Color

Posted in Lecture Materials, PHOT 165 by Paul Turounet on September 13, 2008

Color is life, for a world without color seems dead.  As a flame produces light, light produces color.  As intonation lends color to the spoken word, color lends spiritually realized sound to form.  Harmony implies balance, symmetry of forces.

– Johannes Itten, from The Art of Color


From 1919 – 1922, Johannes Itten developed and taught courses on color theory to students at the School of Applied Arts in Weimer, Germany, or better known as the Bauhaus, the infamous German art school of the early twentieth-century.  Initially trained as an educator with an interest in psychoanalytic theory, Itten utilized these ideas into developing his theories on color composition and the relationships of color which became the foundation of his book, The Art of Color (also found in The Elements of Color).  In the book, Itten proposed that not only was color experienced and understood visually with such considerations as the 12 Hue Color Circle and the Seven Color Contrasts, but also psychologically and emotionally.

While Itten’s ideas on the role and function of color were concentrated and developed within the structure of painting, these same theories can be applied to developing a visual vocabulary and use within the context of color photography.  Below are some useful considerations from Itten’s The Art of Color that suggest the possiblities of developing a color sensibility and color harmony in photography – a visual relationship and structure between colors that are capable of serving as a basis for composition and revealing content.


Color Impression

Colored light reflected from colored objects modifies the colors of other objects.

…………Full Light……………………………………Medium Light……………………………………………..Shadow

© William Eggleston (left); Joel Sternfeld (middle); Paul Graham (right)


Color Altered or Varied in 5 Modes

© Mark Rothko

Hue – name and properties/mixture of a color that enables it to be perceived

Brilliance – how light or dark a color is

Saturation – the level and mixture of white, black, grey or complimentary included in color

Extension – proportions of color

Simultaneous – shifting of colors to complementary


Color Agent and Color Effect

Color Agent is the physically or definable colorant.

Color Effect is the psychophysiolocgical color reality.


Color Expression

Color is not only experienced and understood visually, but also psychologically and emotionally.

© Gregory Crewdson (left) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia (right)


12 Hue Color Circle



Yellow is the color of sunshine. It’s associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy.  Yellow produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity, and generates muscle energy.

Shades of yellow (when gray is added) are visually unappealing because they lose cheerfulness and become dingy.

Dull (dingy) yellow represents caution, decay, sickness, and jealous.

Light yellow is associated with intellect, freshness, and joy.

© Philip-Lorca diCorcia (left), William Eggleston, (middle) and Nan Goldin (right)



Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love.

Light red represents joy, sexuality, passion, sensitivity, and love.

Pink signifies romance, love, and friendship. It denotes feminine qualities and passiveness.

Dark red is associated with vigor, willpower, rage, anger, leadership, courage, longing, malice, and wrath.

Brown suggests stability and denotes masculine qualities.

Reddish-brown is associated with harvest and fall.

© Philip-Lorca diCorcia (left) and William Eggleston (right)



Passive from the point of view of material space.  Always cool and shadowy.  Atmospheric.

Blue is the color of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven.

When dimmed, blue suggests fear, grief, and perdition.

Light blue is associated with health, healing, tranquility, understanding, and softness.

Dark blue represents knowledge, power, integrity, and seriousness.

© Richard Misrach (left); Stephen Shore (middle); and Alec Soth (right)



Intermediate between yellow and blue. Green is the color of nature. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety.

If the green inclines towards yellow, an energetic sense of nature is felt.  Activated by orange, it assumes vulgar cast.  If it inclines towards blue, cold and vigorous aggressiveness.

Dark green is associated with ambition, greed, jealousy and is also commonly associated with money.

Yellow-green can indicate sickness, cowardice, discord, and jealousy.

Aqua is associated with emotional healing and protection.

Olive green is the traditional color of peace.

© Cindy Sherman (left) and Stephen Shore (right)



Mixture of yellow and red.  Maximum radiant activity and solar luminosity. It is associated with joy, sunshine, and the tropics.

Orange represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, and stimulation.

Orange is the color of fall and harvest. In heraldry, orange is symbolic of strength and endurance.

Suggests a range from festive to when whitened, a loss of character.  When diluted with black, declines into dull and withered brown.  By lightening the brown, beige tones achieved suggesting warmth and quiet atmospheric quality.

Dark orange can mean deceit and distrust.

Red-orange corresponds to desire, sexual passion, pleasure, domination, aggression, and thirst for action.

Gold evokes the feeling of prestige. The meaning of gold is illumination, wisdom, and wealth. Gold often symbolizes high quality.

© Edward Burtynsky (left) and Joel Sternfeld (right)



Violet combines the stability of blue and the energy of red and is associated with royalty. It symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition. It conveys wealth and extravagance.

Violet is associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic as well as chaos, death and exaltation.

Solitude and dedication in blue-violet.  Divine love and spirituality in red-violet.

Light violet evokes romantic and nostalgic feelings.

Dark violet evokes gloom and sad feelings. It can cause frustration.

© Christian Patterson (left); Tim Davis (middle); and Mitch Epstein (right)


Seven Color Contrasts

  1. Contrast of Hue
  2. Light – Dark Contrast
  3. Cold – Warm Contrast
  4. Complementary Contrast
  5. Simultaneous Contrast
  6. Contrast of Saturation
  7. Contrast of Extension


Contrast of Hue

At least three (3) clearly differentiated hues are necessary.

Some obvious combinations include:

© William Eggleston


Light – Dark Contrast

Strongest expressions of light and dark are the colors white and black.

The effects of of black and white are in all respects opposite, with the realm of of grays and chromatic colors between them.

Difference between level of brilliance and illumination.  Obscured v. Revealed.

Yellow and Violet have the strongest light – dark contrast.

© Alec Soth


Cold – Warm Contrast

Contrast that is both physical and psychological.

Red – orange represents is at the warmest range of colors, while blue – green is at the coolest.

Cold – Warm properties can be described as:  shadow / sun ;  transparent / opaque ;  sedative / stimulant ;  airy / earthy ;  far / near ;  wet / dry.

© Martin Parr (top right) and Gregory Crewdson (bottom right)


Complementary Contrast

Two colors are called “complementary” when mixed together they produce a neutral gray.

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the Color Wheel.

Analogous colors are any three colors which are side by side on a 12 Hue Color Wheel.

Some examples of complementary colors include:

© Christian Patterson (left); William Eggleston (middle); and William Christenberry (right)


Simultaneous Contrast

Results from the fact that for any given color, the eye simultaneously requires the complementary color, and generates it spontaneously if it is not already present.

The simultaneously generated complementary color occurs as a sensation in the eye of the beholder, and is not objectively present.

It cannot be photographed.


Contrast of Saturation

Relates to the degree of purity of a color.  Contrast between pure, intense colors and dull, diluted colors.

Pure colors may be diluted in four different ways:

  1. Color diluted with white
  2. Color diluted with black
  3. Color diluted with gray
  4. Color diluted by a mixture of corresponding complementary colors

© Stephen Shore


Contrast of Extension

Involves the relative size of two or more areas of color.  It is the contrast between large and small areas.

Colors may be assembled in areas of any size, but the proportion between two or more colors may be said to be in balance or harmony so that no one of the colors is used more prominently than the other.

© Christian Patterson (left); Martin Parr (middle); and William Christenberry (right)


Assignment and Requirements

Take a look at the following slide presentations on color photographers.

Pioneers of Color Photography – Shore | Meyerowitz | Eggleston

Starburst – The New Color Photography

Contemporary Color Photographers


After reviewing each slide show, please complete the following:

Identify one photographer that you find interesting from each slide presentation

Briefly, write 1 – 2 sentences about why you find each photographer’s color photography interesting.


Your response is required to be submitted in the Comment Section below, on the Course Canvas Page or the Instagram site (@a_phototeacher).


See Course Calendar for Due Dates and Times

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