Thinking about colour • 3

Knowing how to use colour can aid your ability to communicate meaning through your images. Colour photography is most successful when you work with the colour for a specific meaning or effect, rather than simply using photography to record colours. Tom Ang (2008, 204)

The symbolism of colour in art appears to be a relatively recent concern. According to Gage (2000) artists before the mid 19th century were more concerned with light, shade and contrast than with colour per se. Colour palette was, in any case, limited by the availability and cost of pigments.(‘Imperial purple’ was expensive both for dyeing clothes and for representing them in paint, hence the modern association with wealth and power)

Gage (2000,109) notes that it has proved difficult to establish anything like a basic universal system of colour symbols because symbolism belongs to metaphor rather than perception and is, therefore, a linguistic (rhetorical) rather than psychological matter. With the improved availability of pigments, and the scientific work of Newton, Goethe and others, by the late 19th century,  artists were developing elaborate schemes of symbolic correspondences, but they were individual to the painter in many cases.

There are also cultural differences in the meaning of colours. For instance, in western cultures, black is seen as the colour of death and white as symbolising life; in eastern cultures this is reversed. In western culture, red is a symbol for danger or for penalties but, as a 2003 HSBC advert pointed out, in China it means good luck and it is the colour of Asian wedding dresses.

In an attempt to discover any consensus on colour symbolism in western culture, I have tabulated comments from the four books and six websites noted in the references below. The books are on my shelves. The websites are all from the first page of a Google search on ‘colour symbolism’, from self-proclaimed colour consultants. This infographic is typical.

Black has a variety of meanings. Death and mourning are noted above, and there are negative connotations in language (‘blackmail’, ‘black list’ …). Possible because of the death connection or because of an association with shadows, black is seen as mysterious, hidden or secretive. However, there is also an association with power, formality and elegance (‘black tie’, ‘little black dress’)

Conversely, white has a clear positive connotations, with a strong consensus meaning of purity, innocence and cleanliness. White is the colour of fresh snow, operating theatres and bride’s dresses.

Falling between the two (at least in colour science terms), grey is the colour of compromise (‘grey area’). It is seen as modest, mature and unemotional, but also as heavy, boring or sad.

Red is the colour of fire and blood, so its connotations are of life, energy, heat and passion. It also represents war, danger, violence and anger. It is a very intense colour which is obvious even in small quantities (cf. Magritte’s comment about a ‘thimbleful of red’). Freeman (2005) notes that it can appear three-dimensional, floating above a dark background; I have seen it suggested that this is because long-wavelength light focuses behind the retina and the movements the eye has to make to bring it into focus are the same as for viewing a closer object.

Pink, a light red, means love and romance. A saturated ‘hot pink’ can be exciting and was once associated with extreme sports. A light pink is feminine or ‘girlish’.

Orange is another colour with mainly positive meanings. The colour of flame, incandescent light and late afternoon sunlight, it symbolises warmth, joy and optimism. Two of the websites, however, point out that it is a ‘love it or hate it’ colour and can denote superficiality or ‘brassiness’

Yellow is the colour of sunlight and symbolises optimism and energy. It is the brightest colour (and the most visible at sea). Secondary meanings are health, happiness and idealism. Paradoxically, it is also the colour of cowardice (‘yellow belly’) caution and some forms of physical illness. Yellow denatures rapidly when mixed, and shades into brown.

Brown is an earth colour (literally) and denotes stability, reliability, ‘hearth and home’, comfort and endurance. One website (colour-wheel-pro) suggests masculine qualities. In its lighter form, as beige, it symbolises quiet and pleasantness but is also rather boring.

Green is another earth colour, the colour of plant life and Mother Nature. Ecologists are ‘green’; gardeners are ‘green fingered’. It denotes growth, harmony, freshness and fertility; also youth, spring and renewal. On the negative side, it depicts inexperience, envy (‘green-eyed monster’) and some forms of sickness. There is a enormous range of greens from forest canopy to strident ‘acid green’ (Kawasaki motorbikes). Green in a flesh tone can look sickly, and an overall green cast to an image becomes unpleasant.

There is no real consensus about cyan (called turquoise in the sampled websites)

Blue is the colour of the unclouded sky. According to Gage (2000), Goethe considered it calming, quiet and nostalgic while Kandinsky considered it spiritual. The website says that blue has more complex and contradictory meanings than any other colour, but this depends on the particular shade of blue; dark blues are more serious, while pale blues are cool and reflective. The consensus view is that blue represents trust, loyalty, integrity and stability – which may explain why it is a popular corporate or ‘branding’ colour. Blue, especially very pale blue, is a cooling colour. Unlike red, it tends to recede and therefore is a useful background colour.

Purple (or violet – only one website called it magenta) is, according to Freeman the most elusive of all colours. I suspect this is because it is not really a spectrum colour at all but encompasses the artificial range of colours between red and blue, created by linking the two opposite ends of the visible spectrum together. It is notoriously difficult to agree on the mixing and naming of purple, mauve, magenta, violet etc. There is a consensus (probably associated with the old idea of ‘imperial purple’) that it represents wealth, nobility and luxury. There are secondary meanings of mystery, magic and spirituality. In its lighter forms, it is a favourite colour of young children. In a very light form, as lavender, it represents femininity, grace and elegance.


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

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

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

Web pages


The Radical Eye

The Radical Eye is an exhibition of modernist (approx 1920-1950) photographs from the Sir Elton John collection, on display at Tate Modern until May 7. The collection has been built up since 1990 and now has some 8000 items, of which about 150 are on display here. Images are displayed thematically: portraits, bodies, documentary, still life and experimental.

Photography in the exhibition is forbidden, but there is always the chance for a few sneaky iPhone shots before getting the tap on the shoulder.

Let’s get the only real criticism out of the way quickly. Everything is displayed in the heavy gold and silver frames used in Elton’s homes, and some are really over-elaborate and tasteless. Thankfully, he has a better eye for a photograph than for a frame, and there are some beautiful images here, and some very important ones (e.g., Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’) He also has a real enthusiasm for his collection, as seen in the walkthrough video which is played on a loop in a side gallery.

Perhaps the least effective display is in the second gallery space, showing portraits. The wall-notes explain that artists and sitters used photography to push the connections of portraiture by innovations in pose, composition and cropping. Apart from the Steiglitz portrait of Georgia O’Keefe (all in the left-hand part of the frame and looking left) I thought the images rather conventional. However, as with my reaction to the Donovan exhibition last year, I recognise that this is because the portraits of the 20s to the 40s have laid the foundations for modern portraiture.

In that space, I particularly enjoyed six ‘corner portraits‘ made by Irving Penn in 1948, where he placed his subjects into a tight acute-angled space formed by two stage flats, causing them to respond to the shape of the space.

An associated section, titled ‘Bodies’ is less conventional, including unusual poses, angles and perspectives, and isolation of body parts. Movement is emphasised by use of shutter speed, either to freeze or blur.

For me, the most interesting section was the documentary photographs, mainly social documentary including some of the FSA images by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. ‘Migrant Mother‘ is iconic, but I was particularly struck by the similarity between the girl in Lange’s ‘The Damage is Already Done’ and Evans’ portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs. Both stare straight out of the image with a look somewhere between pain and disapproval.

The introductory wall-notes tell us that the exhibition ‘charts the changing emphasis from the subject of an image to the visual qualities of the photograph itself, irrespective of what it represents’. This is particularly seen in the still-life and experimental photography displays. Images are double-exposed, distorted, montaged, solarised and generally manipulated in creative ways. There is experimentation with perspective, including the birds-eye and worms-eye views by Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko.

Arguably the most effective (well, my choice anyway) of these, because of the way that it emphasises both the subject matter and the photographic process, is Man Ray’s image of Max Ernst, contact-printed from a shattered glass plate negative.



An enjoyable and though-provoking exhibition. The catalogue is worth buying as a reminder of the images and also for two major essays and an interview with Sir Elton on connoisseurship and collecting.

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.

Hello, is this planet Earth?



We have seen photographs from space before; the ‘Blue Marble‘ image of Earth as seen from Apollo 17 by Eugene Cernan (known to trivia quiz buffs as the last man to walk on the Moon) is one of the most-reproduced photographs ever taken, and with good reason; it demonstrates how small and fragile ‘spaceship Earth’ is in the cosmic context.

Major Tim Peake had a closer view: low Earth orbit. For six months in December 2015 and early 2016 he was a crew member aboard the International Space Station. ‘Hello, is this planet Earth?’ is a collection of his photographs from that unique viewpoint.

A brief introduction describes Peake’s inspiration from his subject matter, and also some of the problems involved in photographing from space: cosmic radiation causing sensors to deteriorate, zero-gravity means that dust gets everywhere and, of course, shooting from a platform moving at 30,000kph. After that, we are into the pictures.

The images are thematically arranged: Night and Day shows how human influence and constructions are difficult to see during daytime, but dominate at night as our towns and cities (and even our individual fishing boats) are lit up. Oceans and Rivers was the most fascinating section for me – with an abstract quality to many of the images. Mountains and Deserts reminds me of the relief maps of my school atlas. Towns and Cities was mostly shot with very long lenses; most detail of human habitation being too small to see with the naked eye. Space and Home shows us astronomic and atmospheric phenomena.

This is a book of beautiful images, and worth seeing for that alone, but is also thought-provoking as we see how insignificant is man’s mark on the planet and how thin is that strip of atmosphere that we live in compared with the vastness of space around it. Peake had a privileged viewpoint; we are privileged to share it.


Peake, T.(2016)Hello, is this planet Earth? My View from the International Space Station. London: Random House (Penguin)

Exercise 5.3 -Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare

Unfortunately, this photograph is no longer on permanent display at the V&A. It is in a study collection, available by appointment only, so I was unable to view it on a recent visit. However, there are numerous reproductions in print and online. This is one of the better examples.


source: pinterest

This is a curious image, not one of HCB’s best – I prefer the keen observation and humour of his 1937 photos from of the crowds at the coronation of George VI that were exhibited in Strange and Familiar. It is not even that good technically, with its motion blur, clogged-up shadows and heavy grain. However it is pretty much the image that defines ‘the decisive moment’.

Look at the action. The man is crossing a large puddle or flooded yard. He is the first to have come that way for a while – the water is almost entirely unrippled – and has taken two or three rapid steps (we know they were rapid because the water has not rippled far yet) along the makeshift ladder and launched himself off the end.

HCB catches the action with the man’s foot about a centimetre above the water – only a few milliseconds before touching down and causing another ripple or a big splash to destroy the pristine surface. What happens next? Will he keep his feet dry or will the water overtop his shoes? We don’t know how deep it is. Sometimes I imagine a ‘Vicar of Dibley’ chest-deep puddle.

If that were all there is to the image it would be interesting enough, but there is a Barthesian ‘punctum’, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. Not immediately obvious until one has spent a bit of time viewing the image is the figure in the background poster mirroring the man’s leap. Was he conscious of it? Probably not. Was HCB conscious of it at the time of taking the shot, waiting for the man to poise himself in imitation? We don’t know, but he would have seen it when examining his contacts – and had the genius to print it.

HCB tells us (in L’amour tout court) that this was a lucky shot, grabbed blind through the railings. To some extent that is true (he cannot have timed his shutter release to the millisecond) but I am reminded of the great golfing put-down (variously attributed to Gary Player, Tom Watson or Ben Hogan) ‘Yes, it was a lucky shot, and the more I practice the luckier I get.’

Thinking about colour • 1

In feedback after assignment 4, my tutor commented:

You have clearly observed and recorded colour in the work and created your own colour palette. In relation to this I would like to have seen further development with research into theory and symbolism in the use of colour.

I therefore plan a series of three postings, between now and the end of the course, dealing with colour. As Itten(1974) has pointed out, there are many ways of looking at colour: a physicist will be interested in radiation and optics, a chemist in the nature of pigments and paints, a painter in the way that colours interact on the canvas etc.

This first posting, dealing loosely with the scientific background, will be mostly unreferenced because the starting point is high school physics lessons and other influences too deeply ingrained to unravel.

What colour is

Visible light is one manifestation of electromagnetic radiation. The full spectrum ranges from radio at one end to gamma radiation at the other, a total of 400 octaves of frequency (Asimov ‘Four hundred octaves’ a 1982 essay collected in Asimov 1984). Of this, slightly less than one octave (approximate wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers(frequency 430-750THz)) is visible to the human eye. The phenomenon that we call colour is the brain’s way of interpreting the difference between frequencies of visible light.


source: Wikipedia

These colours can be seen in natural phenomena such as rainbows, but it was only when Isaac Newton demonstrated splitting and recombining the colours from white light with a prism that the principle was understood. The spectrum above also shows the invisible radiation at either end of the visible range, infra-red and ultra-violet, which can also be recorded by cameras. The naming of the traditional seven colours has more to do with mysticism than science: indigo is really a dark blue and there are no discrete colours in a continuum.

The (in my opinion) questionable next step is to turn the linear spectrum into a ‘colour wheel’ by stitching the red and blue ends together through a range of colours known variously as purple, magenta or mauve. I suspect the reason why these colours are difficult to describe is that they are conceptually artificial.

The 1990 Schiffman diagram is the most ‘honest’ of these examples as it shows the pink-purple sector is separate from the ‘rainbow colours’. It also introduces the concept of saturation. However, whatever the scientific basis, the full colour wheel can be justified because it ‘works’ for colour mixing.

Primary and secondary colours

Although colours have almost-infinite variety, it is not necessary to have an enormous number of colour sources to reproduce them.

It is notionally possible to select a smaller number of ‘pure’ colours and mix the others from them. How many colours, and which, will depend on personal choice, the nature of the medium and the way in which the primaries are mixed. Usually, three primaries are used. Artists mixing paint, and schoolchildren using crayons, use red, yellow and blue as seen in the first diagram below.

The standard when mixing lights, and on colour TV screens, computer monitors etc. is to use red, green and blue, as illustrated in the middle diagram. This type of mixing is called additive because the lights are added to each other, the secondary colours (formed by mixing equal amounts of two primaries) are lighter and it is possible to produce white by mixing all three equally.

When printing, including computer inkjet and laser printers, the inks lie on the white paper and subtract some colours from the white base. Adding further ink reduces the colour still further and this type of mixing is called subtractive. The subtractive primaries are the same as the additive secondaries (cyan, magenta and yellow), producing red, blue and green when mixing in pairs and, notionally, black when they are all mixed together. In practice, a mixture of the three pigments is a rather muddy, dark colour rather than pure black, so printers will add a black ink to the set, giving the standard CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK) inkset of low-end printers. Because of technical issues in the way the inks are formulated and applied, the colour mixing of the basic four colours is not perfect, and high-end printers use additional colours to fill the perceived gaps. For instance, my Canon PixmaPro 9500 uses ten inks in nine colours: the basic CMYK set, lighter versions of magenta, cyan and black, plus red and green. There are two different blacks (matt black MBK and photo black PBK) but this is about ‘glossiness’ rather than colour.

Colour temperature

The colour of a scene depends on the colour of the light illuminating it. The eye and brain will accommodate this, to some extent and perceive the scene in its ‘true colours’. The process of ‘colour correction’ is an attempt to alter the true colour of the scene to accord with the way it is perceived.

The main reason for colour variation is the temperature of the light source. A physical concept called ‘black body radiation’ says that the amount of radiation emitted by a body increases with its temperature, and also that the average colour (peak of the frequency curve) tends toward the higher-frequency, short-wavelength blue end of the spectrum.


source: Wikipedia

Thus, the sun with its surface temperature of about 6000K emits light that we perceive as white (that being what the eye has evolved to do) but an incandescent light bulb, with a coil temperature of 3000K emits mainly infra-red (heat) radiation plus some visible light at the red/yellow end of the spectrum. The situation is more complicated with fluorescent sources, which have a discontinuous spectrum and require correcting on the green-magenta axis as well as the blue-yellow axis.

One curiosity is that the bluer colours are considered ‘cooler’, while red and yellow light is considered ‘warmer’ and more comforting, in contradiction to their relative physical colour temperatures. Partly, this is due to common experience; fire is yellow, ice is bluish. However, I speculate that part of the cause relates to Rayleigh scattering, by which the red-yellow light from the sun reaches us directly, while blue light is scattered and turns the entire sky dome blue. This means that an outdoor scene effectively has mixed light sources. Objects directly lit by the sun have a yellow tint while objects in shadow are lit by light from the sky dome and acquire a blue tint.

The next posting of the set will look at the way colours are used together, whether harmonious, complementary or ‘clashing’.

The final posting will look at some of the symbolism of colours.


Asimov, I. (1984) X stands for unknown. New York, NY, United States: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

Itten, J. (1974) The art of color: The subjective experience and objective rationale of color. 2nd edn. New York: Wiley, John & Sons

Understanding a Photograph – John Berger

‘Understanding a Photograph’ is the title of both a 1968 essay by John Berger (2013, pp17-21) and the more recent Penguin Classics collection containing it. As with any collection of essays in which this device is used, the book is both more and less than its title suggests. More, because the book ranges much further than the scope of a single essay. Less, because the student looking for an in-depth discourse on interpreting individual photographs will not find it here.

Penguin have collected together a group of Berger’s essays spanning 40 years from 1967 to 2007. For a book ostensibly about photography, there are very few photographs (a point also regretted by Geoff Dyer in his introduction (ibid. xvii)) which makes some of the essays difficult to follow; Berger refers peripherally to images with which he is familiar but I am not. Nowadays, I could make a Google search and find the image – an option that was not available to the original reader in most cases. Many of the photographs which are presented have suffered in the printing process, with shadow detail lost and spreading into the highlights.

In the title essay and elsewhere, Berger argues against trying to shoehorn photography into the fine arts, seeing it as something different (and apparently seeing the fine arts as morphing into expressions of valuable property, inimical to his left-wing views). What sets photography apart from the other visual arts is its characteristic reproducibility (I wonder if he views daguerrotypes and Polaroids differently); a photograph does not have ‘property value’ but, instead is witness to a human choice exercised in a given situation.

He is dismissive of the idea of ‘composition’ in photography (and scornful of arranged still-lifes), regarding composition as something that painters do when creating an image from a blank piece of paper. Instead, a photographer is faced by the world and has to select from it through the viewfinder. More importantly, ‘The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.’ (Berger 2013, 19). The photographer selects the instant at which he presses the shutter button. This part of the essay is an alternative take on Cartier-Bresson’s notion of ‘the decisive moment’, although without HCB’s regard for the ‘geometry’.

There are two other essays, ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’, both from 1982, which deal with photography in a theoretical way. The others could best be described as extended rambles triggered by particular photographs or photographers. For instance, a photograph by Sitka Hanzlová triggers a riff on the nature of forests. Berger has said, in this book and elsewhere that having the text describe the image, or the image illustrating the text, are tautologies which he tries to avoid. He seems to have succeeded in this collection.

In summary, this is a book to be read for breadth rather than depth. There is not a lot of instruction but it is an insight into the mind of one of the important figures in the 20th century art world.


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.