Thinking about colour • 2

In this posting, I look at colour harmony, the question of which colours ‘go’ with which. I had thought of this as a fairly universal concept, so was surprised to read in ‘Colour and Meaning’ (Gage 2000) that art history has little discussion of colour harmony until the 20th century, having been more interested in ‘value’ (shades of dark and light) hitherto. Earlier discussion of colour was between scientists rather than artists. I will be returning to Gage as a main source in the third posting of this series.

Colour harmony is a popular (frequent) topic in hobby magazines and technique books, which all take very similar approaches. My sources for this posting are Tom Ang (2008) and Michael Freeman (2005 and 2007).

There are two basic strategies, adjacent colour (restricted colour palette) or contrasting (complementary) colour.

Adjacent colour combinations use colour tones that are next to each other in the colour circle, such as desert landscapes (yellow/brown/rust) or seascapes (blue/cyan/green). Ang comments that these tend to be restful on the eye and can be viewed for long periods.

Complementary colours are those directly opposite each other in the colour circle, such as red/cyan or blue/yellow; these big colour contrasts can be exciting in the short term but lead to visual fatigue.

For Freeman, this is a special 2-colour case of a more general principle. Harmonious colour contrasts of three or more colours are possible provided the chosen colours are symmetrical in the colour circle.


source: Freeman (2005)

The proportions of colour in the image are also important. Henri Matisse is famously quoted as saying ‘A thimbleful of red is redder than bucketful’. There is a camera club in-joke that claims the abbreviation ARPS stands for ‘a red patch somewhere’

Freeman draws on Goethe’s 1810 ‘Zür Farbenlehre‘ (Theory of Colours) as modified by Schopenhauer, to codify suggested proportions of the colours. Starting with Goethe’s brightness values (yellow 9, orange 8, red 6, green 6, blue 4, violet 3) he suggests that, for balance, the colours should be used in inverse proportion to their brightness values, thus:


source: Freeman (2007)

The third posting of this series will look at some of the symbolism of colours.


Ang, T. (2008) Fundamentals of modern photography. London: Mitchell Beazley.

Gage, J.D. (2000) Colour and meaning: Art, science and symbolism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Freeman, M. (2005) Colour: The definitive guide for serious digital photographers (digital photography expert). London, United Kingdom: ILEX.

Freeman, M. (2007) The photographer’s eye: Composition and design for better digital photos. London, United Kingdom: Ilex.


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