Exercise: Colour relationships

The brief:

This exercise is in two parts. The first is to produce one photograph for each combination of primary and secondary colours, adjusting the distance, focal length or framing when you shoot so that you compose the picture to the proportions listed according to Goethe’s ratios – or at least close to them.

For the second part, the rules are not so strict. Produce three or four images which feature colour combinations that appeal to you. They can be combinations of two colours or more. The objective here is to demonstrate that there is no single ‘correctness’ to complementary colours. But you should be aware of any imbalance in the combination and study its effect. Write this in your learning log for future reference.

The ratios mentioned above refer to Goethe’s numerical ratios to measure the contrast of extension. Contrast of extension is degree of contrast between ‘much and little, or great and small’ (Itten, 1970, p.59). Goethe’s values for the colours are:

  • Yellow = 9
  • Orange = 8
  • Red = 6
  • Violet = 3
  • Blue = 4
  • Green = 6

How these ratios work is something like this: yellow is three times as strong as its complementary colour, violet, therefore when we convert these numbers to harmonious proportions we should use only one part yellow to three parts violet. Otherwise the yellow would totally overpower the violet and most probably be very glaring on the eye. In the same way orange is twice as strong as its complementary blue, so the correct harmonious ratio to use would be one part orange to two parts blue. Red and green, however are equal in intensity so a fifty-fifty colour split would be in order here.

Part 1

Fig 01 - Yellow-violet

Fig 01 – Yellow – violet
f6.3, 1/80, 45mm, ISO 200

I have really struggled to find the colour combination in Vancouver. I had to resort to visiting the Queen Elizabeth Park, a horticultural park to find this combination. As I mentioned elsewhere in a posting, Vancouver is not a city with a riot of colour. Blues, greens, greys, blacks – yes most definitely. This is even reflected in the way the local people dress, as if to blend in with their surroundings. Now if I was looking for this in my native South Africa, this would be no problem. Colour is embraced wholeheartedly there. But I digress … Although the yellow flowers have almost orange centres I’m going to classify them as yellow because the petals are a solid shade of yellow. I think the proportion of 1:3 is close enough as well. One part yellow to three parts violet – there are violet flowers to the left and above the yellow as well. The violet doesn’t match the intensity of the yellow and is probably a few tints lighter, It is probably clearer in the abstract version below.

Fig 02 - Yellow-violet abstract

Fig 02 – Yellow – violet (abstract)

Fig 03 Orange:blue

Fig 03 – Orange – blue
f8, 1/640, 50mm, ISO 100

Goethe’s ideal ratio for the complementary colours orange and blue are 1:2. Although the orange bollards seem to dominate the scene in fig 03, the blue screen is more than twice the height of the bollard thereby creating a 1:2 ratio (or fairly close). There are also blue accents in the signs at the end of the blue screen as well as above it. There is also a blue tint in the girl’s T-shirt and signs which are hanging on the blue screen. When viewing the abstract rendition of this photo below (fig 04) the colour ratio is clearly visible and more “solidified”

Fig 04 Orange: blue - Abstract

Fig 04 – Orange – blue (abstract)

Fig 05 Red-green

Fig 05 Red – green
f6.3, 1/160, 34mm, ISO 200

Back in Queen Elizabeth Park I spotted this tree surrounded by red begonias (Fig 05). The various shades of green from the lawn, cypress tree and the rhododendron at the back provide a harmonious contrast to the vivid red of the begonias. Even though Goethe’s combination for red-green are 1:1 it is obvious that the contrast works in other combinations as well. In a red-green scenario I think sometimes less is more. The abstract version can be seen in fig 06 below.

Fig 06 - Red-green abstract

Fig 06 – Red – green (abstract)

Part 2

Fig 07 Blue - pink

Fig 07 – Blue – pink
f4, 1/160, 50mm, ISO 200

Even in this age of equal opportunity and genderless roles that society has created, it is still a strange sight to come across a man sitting crocheting berets. This reminded me so much of the African ladies back in South Africa who would sit with their backs against their huts, legs stretched out in the sun, crocheting or doing bead-work. However, this is in Canada and this photo depicts an example of cold-warm contrast (both literally and theoretically). The cold of the blue of the window frames, the man’s shirt and jeans and the tarpaulin on which his wares are displayed contrast with the warm reds and pinks of the winter berets he has crocheted and is busy crocheting. The abstract depiction below almost looks like one of those heat sensing images one sees at the movies.

Fig 08 Blue - pink (abstract)

Fig 08 – Blue – pink (abstract)

Fig 09 - Blue - yellow

Fig 09 – Blue – yellow
f5.6, 1/1250, 50mm, ISO 100

Fig 09 was shot at the Vancouver Peace Rally in Support of the Ukraine. I am rather apolitical, but find protest rallies good places for street photography as the people protesting usually do want their photos taken. This shot was taken at the beginning of the march. Most of the protesters had the Ukrainian blue and yellow flags or were dressed in blue and yellow clothing. The ratio of blue and yellow here is probably about 1:1 or fifty-fifty, this combination does work. Again, this is a cold-warm contrast which probably helps to offset the ‘imbalance of ratio’. The abstract version can be seen in fig 10.

Fig 10 Blue-yellow (abstract)

Fig 10 – Blue – yellow (abstract)

Fig 11 Orange-green

Fig 11 – Orange – green
f8, 1/800, 50mm, ISO 100

While waiting for the protest rally to begin I kept circling the Art Gallery, which was the gathering place for the rally and came across this little juice stand. Quite the perfect refreshment for a hot day. Orange and green values are quite close together, namely 8 and 6 respectively so the combination works well together. Once again it is a cold-warm contrast. Set in mainly muted tones, the eye is immediately drawn to the orange stand and the green of the umbrella and base of the trailer, but there is a darker shade of green in the trees in the background and this balances out the intensity of the orange juice stand. Fig 12 shows the abstract version.

Fig 12 Orange-green (abstract)

Fig 12 – Orange – green (abstract)

Fig 13 Red-yellow-blue

Fig 13 – Red – yellow – blue
f8, 1/640, 34mm, ISO 100

Here are all three primary colours in one photo (fig 13) – red, yellow and blue. We have the blue sky, sea and railing as well as the overall blue tone of the city buildings in the distance. The red girders form a strong visual anchor point on the right of the frame together with the yellow caution sign, which holds the eye a little longer, before going off to explore the background and sea. I think the proportions form a good triadic, harmonious balance. Fig 14 shows the abstract version.

Fig 14 Red-yellow-blue (abstract)

Fig 14 – Red – yellow – blue (abstract)

Reference List

Freeman, Michael (2007). The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and design for Better Digital Photos. Lewes, England: The Ilex Press.

Itten, Johannes, 1970. The Elements of Color. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

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