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Although photography is relativity new in terms of history, color still provides us with the opportunity to convey meaning and draw the eye. Monochromatic pallets take color photography to the next level.
From the origins of color photography, photographers have honed in on the emotional bond humans have with color. First used in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still in use. Blue was popular in Egypt and later in the medieval era to depict the delicate robes of deities. Fast forward to the present and we are surrounded by the same array of colors that impressed our ancestors. The difference now is only that we are able to harness it for our own uses with much greater ease.
Black and white photography (which renders a photograph in varying degrees of gray) is the dominant example of monochromatic photography. You may be surprised to learn, however, that monochromatic photography is not limited to black and white.
A classic example is sepia, the warm tone that is reminiscent of aging photographs. Over time, sepia slowly claims the tones of black and white images and transforms them into shades of reddish-brown instead.
Basically, any photograph containing only the hues or tones of a specific color are considered monochromatic. A photograph can be organically similar in tone or edited in post-production by adjusting the blending mode of a solid colored layer. Either way, monochromatic photography is about prioritizing color to enhance mood and atmosphere.
The color red traditionally conveys vigor, love, anger and valor – all of which are passionate emotions. The blood vessels in our face expand in times of stress making our cheeks flush red. We bleed red blood when we are hurt. When suffering from lack of sleep (or hay fever) we even develop bloodshot eyes. Red has a unique physical relationship with the human body. We are attracted to it because we are so familiar with it in ourselves.
Red also catches our eye so effectively because it triggers an evolutionary response. As humans evolved, we came to understand red as a color that could portend danger. The color which drew the watchful eye of our prehistoric relatives registers as an attention-grabbing color in the modern day. An example of this is red stop signs or signs warning of danger. Photographers can use this evolutionary connection to catch a viewer’s attention quickly and hold it for longer.
Monochromatic red conveys unease or unrest but also appears more gentle in nature with the change of seasons. It’s boldness contrasts pattern and texture, and blends with darker shades to lend the illusion of voyeurism or intimacy.
Sharing properties with yellow and red, orange is a versatile color most often associated with heat, health, and strength. It encourages extroversion and activity. Red, yellow and orange combine to depict flames and desert landscapes. Orange pumpkins carved out at Halloween lend their color to the annual festival. Red squirrels are actually orange, as is the red fox. The tiger, striped with orange lends its reputation of courage to the color itself.
In the color version of the “chicken or the egg” scenario, the color orange is believed to have been named after the fruit, not the other way around. In ancient Egypt, artists used orange mineral pigment for tomb paintings, and medieval artists used the pigment to color manuscripts. Before the late 15th century, Europeans had no specific name for orange, calling it yellow-red instead. Portuguese merchants, trading orange trees to Europe from Asia also imported the Sanskrit word “naranga” which evolved into “orange” in English.
Orange in photography is atmospheric and dense, but like red, it can also indicate danger or the need for caution. Because of its associations with sunsets and autumn, orange is useful for alluding to the time of day or the season. It can lend energy to a photograph, but its warm tones can also emphasize relaxation and warmth, reflecting the warmth of a fire or candle flame.
Yellow is the color of joy, spontaneity, and laughter! As the color of the sun, yellow lends vibrancy to a photograph, creating lightness and a sense of ease. Alongside red, prehistoric cave paintings were decorated with yellow ochre and ancient Egyptians used yellow in elaborate tomb paintings to represent gold. The painter Vincent van Gohn was a great admirer of yellow, describing the color to his sister in a letter saying, “The sun, a light that for lack of a better word I can only call yellow, bright sulfur yellow, pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!”
Our predominantly positive associations with the color yellow mean that photographers can convey scenes of happiness more effectively with color. Although darker yellows can be associated with autumn, lighter tones are associated with spring, renewal, and clarity.
Highly discernible from any background, yellow is useful for safety purposes. Bright yellow high-visibility jackets and reflectors are worn universally as a safety precaution. However, yellow’s vibrancy can prove to be fatiguing on the eyes, which could be the reason why jarring shades of yellow are sometimes associated with unease and anxiety. Try balancing yellow out with negative space or a range of soft yellow tones to avoid over-saturated photographs.
In some cultures, green denotes jealousy and sickness. In others, it represents wealth or a lack of experience. Overall, however, most would agree that the dominant association of green is with nature. Green’s associations with health and growth stem from the life cycle of trees, seeds, fruit, and vegetables. Its ties to nature have even been borrowed by environmental groups who aim to preserve the natural environment.
Some scientists suggest that the calming and centering nature of the color green is due to the composition of the human eye. Our eyes have three types of receptors called cones, each dedicated to a particular wavelength – red, green or blue. Two of the three types of cones have a reasonably high degree of sensitivity to the green wavelength. When color information is relayed to the brain, the majority of that information is about green. This means that we are able to decipher variations in green tones much more effectively than we can for other colors which make the color more dynamic to a viewer.
Often green has been described as having a calming or even hypnotic effect due to its tonal variations. Monochromatic green color allows photographers to create densely rich imagery that appeals to our eyes and our emotions.
Blue is another color that has strong associations with nature. It is an incredibly changeable color, with perhaps the most diverse connotations. Overwhelmingly selected by many as a favorite color, blue speaks to many with the emotion even a picture cannot fully dictate. Interestingly, the distinction between blue and green as separate colors is not universal. For example, ancient Japanese people used the word “ao” as a blanket term for both green and blue. Modern Japanese has a separate word for green – midori – but the boundaries between the two colors is not as cleat-cut as that of English speakers.
Blue can convey sorrow, depression, harmony, relaxation, or modernity. When fluorescent, it can lend a scene of other-worldly surrealism. It’s a color that is often tied to internal emotion. A monochromatic blue scheme can subtly allude to a subject’s state or emphasize detail.
With the invention of new synthetic pigments in the 18th and 19th centuries, impressionist arts began to observe the color that existed in shadow. It became the favorite color of impressionist painters to convey nature, mood, and atmosphere. Later Picasso, realizing the emotional effect of blue tones, began to paint only in blues and greens after the death of a friend.
Often associated with young love, spring time, sensitivity, and femininity, pink takes its title from a flower of the same name. Ancient poets of Rome described the color in their verse, and Renaissance artist Raphael depicted baby Jesus presenting a pink flower to his mother Mary.
The luxurious hue of the color pink has perhaps been most stunningly captured by the films of director Wes Anderson. The rich wedding-cake pallet of movies such as The Grand Budapest Hotel are heavy with the atmospheric luxury and manicured design. But Wes Anderson’s color pallet is also somewhat stifling. The constant presence of the color pink becomes claustrophobic for the characters who inhabit the hotel. It’s presence, depicting traditional ideas of femininity is beautiful and smotheringly repetitious.
Because of its strong associations of softness and joy, pink can be used ironically to contrast darker imagery teetering between dark surrealism and a sweet dream.
Because of its associations with lavender, many cultures have come to view purple as the color of health and relaxation. As an intermediate between blue and red, purple is a color that stimulates contemplation but doesn’t belie a greater sense of sorrow as blue.
As the process for obtaining the color purple was long and laborious. Only royalty, nobles, kings and priests of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe wore a very rich strain of purple dubbed “Tyrian purple”. While purple was worn less frequently by Medieval and Renaissance kings and princes, it continued to be worn by professors of Europe’s new universities, hence the association with wisdom.
While purple is readily available nowadays, it can often be a contentious topic of discussion. In my days of retail, I learned from discerning customers that purple is a color you either love or hate. While I consider myself a fence sitter in the matter, I can understand the passion that the color purple stimulates, worn by the wisest and often the most mysterious individuals in history.
So how do you use monochrome color in your photography? Use this information to use color to add mood and feeling to your images. Please share your monochrome images in the comments below.