Learning to See, Part IV

Learning to See, Part IV

The Hues and Use of Colour, Part III

Seek the strongest colour possible…the content is of no importance

–Henri Matisse


Upon review of our last entry we learned that the colour, tone or shade of a perimeter colour can, and does, affect the primary subject. The works of the artists identified —Turner, Maisel and Meola — amplify this notion without reservation.

In many cases a specific colour is also very responsible for controlling our subconscious.  When we think of white we translate our thoughts to purity and objectivity. Red is for romance, yellow of jealousy, and green for a pristine environment. At the same time we can look at the colour black as a flat monotone that is suggestive of death; paint that same uninspired black with a wash of high gloss varnish and it immediately takes on a feeling of high-class and being formal. Blue is the most popular and preferred colour by adults in North America.


A Basic Colour Wheel showing Primary and Secondary Colours


An advertising executive once told me colour sells, the right colour sells better. It is not by accident that we instantly identify a specific red with Coca-Cola, yellow with Kodak or National Geographic, HP and IBM with the use of blue, and green by Fuji.  These colours were not selected by accident, and reinforces the notion that colour does have a very profound effect on how we view an image.

If we think of the colours of Coke and Kodak and IBM, we instantly associate these corporate colours as being a bold red, yellow and blue respectively. These are primary colours, from which all other colours are made. If we were to mix an equal amount of two primary colours, the result would be the secondary hues of orange, green and violet. And so it continues, and millions of colours are possible by mixing variations of these three primary colours.

Review illustration two, and see the effect the perimeter colour has on the red square in the centre. Against the black background the red stands up and offers an illusion of brilliance and strength, whereas when bordered by green the red really comes to life and is vibrant and happy. Meanwhile when surrounded by orange there is no contrast and the red square appears as, well, blah! Introduce violet as a neighbour and it simply kills that once vibrant and full of life little red square.


Illustration 2


That is all fine and dandy but what does it mean for the beginning photographer?

Much, and if you remember the basic principle of colour theory you will see yourself moving around the landscape more than ever looking for the complementary colour to support that of the subject. In so doing your final result will have more contrast and impact and you will more often than not be rewarded with the ‘wow’ factor.


This autumn scene near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia is not overly exciting but provides a good example of colour theory in practise. If you cover the bottom half of the picture you are left with a secondary coloured orange foliaged tree and violet coloured sky, and the scene completely lacks any attention grabbing detail. Next cover the top half of the image; although the bottom half of the scene, although much less interesting than the picture as a whole, has far more impact due to the primary colour of yellow being surrounded by the primary colour of red and thus supporting the point of Matisse as quoted at the opening.


There have been many textbooks written on colour theory, and the science of the colour wheel dates back to at least the time of Newton. Personally, my curiosity is aroused when I am out making pictures, all I have to remember is that opposite colours attract, bordering colours repel. Too easy; now get out there and make some great pictures.

And remember, if you are having fun you are doing it right!

See the Full Learning to See Series

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Dale Wilson is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner Garry Black.'

Some Older Comments

  • Attorney August 14, 2013 05:33 am

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  • Dale Wilson February 6, 2013 05:46 am

    From the author ... Let's not split hairs and remember the header at the top of the article "Learning to See."

    My point at this juncture is to teach BASIC colour theory and how that visual awareness will advance their photography in the field. Stop right there. We are not talking about CMYK conversions for the presses but how the eye sees colour when making photographs.

    aaanouel I understand your frustrations with CMY, the conversion from RGB and the totally different gamut's of both colour spaces and the many, many variations in between. However until the world rids itself of RGB I'm afraid that is the world of colour as we know it.

    Thank you for not confusing the issue any further in this forum, but feel free to e-mail me personally if you would like to vent further. Alternatively, I suppose you could bring your best foot forward and write your own article for advanced image makers; but please don't confuse the readers to whom this article was intended.

    -Dale Wilson

  • aaanouel February 6, 2013 05:25 am

    So the the "Basic Colour Wheel showing Primary and Secondary Colours" above, is TOTALLY WRONG and should be erased from the face of the earth!
    and I'm not kidding.

  • aaanouel February 6, 2013 05:18 am

    ¡There's a terrible, old and basic error in this article!.
    Primary colors for subtraction color system (painting and printing) ARE NOT red, blue and yellow as it has been taught since I was a kid and has led to the frustration of so many people, but MAGENTA, CYAN AND YELLOW.

    Red and blue are already secondary (mixed) colors (red is magenta plus yellow and blue is cyan plus a bit of red) and if trying to use them as primary colors you'll never get the color mix you're looking for but already contaminated dirty colors. Ask someone who knows about printing or painting.

    For additive color system Primary Colors (TV) are red, green and blue but that's a totally different story.

  • Andrea February 1, 2013 02:46 am

    Truly i love be able to read these tutorials, i am a student of photography and i have so much to learn that I enjoy reading the wise words that day to day approaching us these teachers! Many heartfelt thanks!
    I am Latina, I apologize for my english!

  • Francis February 1, 2013 02:41 am

    Red always remind of angry birds.


  • starling January 31, 2013 01:24 pm

    One note that I think is particularly important for photographers: the "true" primaries aren't red, yellow, and blue; they're cyan, yellow, and magenta. For an artist mixing pigments, using the "old" primaries is probably acceptable; many use two versions of each primary on their palette anyway (one "warm" and one "cool").

    However, we really need to be very specific with photography. First, for printing. Most modern printers combine cyan, yellow, and magenta (along with a black) to reproduce photos. So it's best to think of colors in these terms from the beginning so that you're not having to translate what you mean when you're considering printing. (For example, red is a combination of magenta and yellow, and blue is a combination of cyan and magenta.)

    Second, and in my opinion more importantly, is how it applies to the color theory of light. The true primaries of light are green, blue, and red. If you notice, these are the complements to cyan (red), yellow (blue), and magenta (green). That's no coincidence! When you're working primarily with digital photography, it's helpful to remember this, because digital editors use light for color mixing. For instance, if you'd like to add a little cyan to your photo, one way is to reduce the overall red of the photo. If you think that the primaries of pigments are blue, yellow, and red, this task is much more difficult than if you remember they're cyan, yellow, and magenta.

    I learned color theory the old-fashioned way (as yellow, red, and blue) from learning to mix paints at a very young age. I have found that I have an incredibly difficult time "unlearning" that. I'd hate for others who transition over to digital photography to struggle the way I do. I have to keep a color wheel at hand to remind me when I'm working on photography, whereas mixing pigments of paint is second nature.

  • Darren Lightfoot January 31, 2013 03:16 am

    Dale - great article. I think in my opinion the best in the series.....well so far for me. Please keep them coming.

  • DyaDyo Sadim January 29, 2013 06:22 pm

    Thank you Sir Dale Wilson, your article help me a lot and to know the great people in photography inspires me.

  • Elaine January 29, 2013 04:00 am

    This article is so true! That purple and red put together I automatically thing amateurish. But when I think about Coke for example, I think bold and bright and professional!

  • fred hamilton January 29, 2013 02:02 am

    Interesting words by Matisse.

  • Scottc January 28, 2013 10:00 pm

    I've enjoyed this series of articles, kind of explains why some otherwise not-so-interesting photos pop and vice-versa.