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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Yellow Teeshirts and Blue Cotton Candy

Yellow Teeshirts and Blue Cotton Candy

Year: 2014, Month: July

American Samoa > Tutuila > Pago Pago

There is no doubt that certain colors always look better together. In this photograph we have the bold yellow of the teeshirts playing off the opposing blue of the towels, shorts, and cotton-candy. (My British readers will prefer it to be called as 'Candy Floss'). Why is this? to learn more, we need to delve into 'Complimentary Color Theory'. Wikipedia tells us that complementary colors are pairs of colors which, when combined in the right proportions, produce white or black. When placed next to each other, they create the strongest contrast and reinforce each other. They are widely used in art and design. Just which pairs of complementary colors we are talki ng about varies, depending upon the color model, and how the color is made. In painting, which uses subtractive colors, the traditional primary–secondary complementary color pairs, described since at least the early 18th century, were red–green, yellow–violet, and blue–orange. In the more accurate RGB color model, used to make colors on computer and television displays, red, green and blue light are combined at various intensities to make all the other colors. In this latter system, using additive colors, the complementary pairs are red–cyan, green–magenta, and blue–yellow. In color printing, another system of subtractive colors, the colors cyan, magenta, yellow and black are used to produce all printed colors; the CMYK-system complementary pairs are the same as in the RGB system: red–cyan, green–magenta, and blue–yellow.

The effect that colors have upon each other had been noted since antiquity. In his essay On Colors, Aristotle observed that 'when light falls upon another color, then, as a result of this new combination, it takes on another nuance of color.' Saint Thomas Aquinas had written that purple looked different next to white than it did next to black, and that gold looked more striking against blue than it did against white; the Italian Renaissance architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti observed that there was harmony (coniugatio in Latin, and amicizia in Italian) between certain colors, such as red–green and red–blue; and Leonardo da Vinci observed that the finest harmonies were those between colors exactly opposed (retto contrario), but no one had a convincing scientific explanation why that was so until the 18th century.

In 1704, in his treatise on optics, Isaac Newton devised a circle showing a spectrum of seven colors. In this work and in an earlier work in 1672, he observed that certain colors around the circle were opposed to each other and provided the greatest contrast; he named red and blue, yellow and violet, and green and 'a purple close to scarlet.' In the following decades, scientists refined Newton's color circle, eventually giving it twelve colors: the three primary colors (yellow, blue, and red); three secondary colors (green, violet, and orange), made by combining primary colors; and six additional colors, made by combining the primary and secondary colors. In 1793, the American-born British scientist Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753–1814), coined the term complementary colors. While staying at an inn in Florence, he made an experiment with candles and shadows, and discovered that colored light and the shadow cast by the light had perfectly contrasting colors. He wrote, 'To every color, without exception, whatever may be its hue or shade, or however it may be compounded, there is another in perfect harmony to it, which is its complement, and may be said to be its companion.' He also noted some of the practical benefits of this discovery. 'By experiments of this kind, which might easily be made, ladies may choose ribbons for their gowns, or those who furnish rooms may arrange their colors upon principles of the most perfect harmony and of the purest taste. The advantages that painters might derive from a knowledge of these principles of the harmony of colors are too obvious to require illustration.'

In 1828, the French chemist Eugene Chevreul, making a study of the manufacture of Gobelin tapestries to make the colors brighter, demonstrated scientifically that 'the arrangement of complementary colors is superior to any other harmony of contrasts.' His 1839 book on the subject, De la loi du contraste simultaneé des couleurs et de l'assortiment des objets colorés, showing how complementary colors be used in everything from textiles to gardens, was widely read in Germany, France and England, and made complementary colors a popular concept. The use of complementary colors was further publicized by the French art critic Charles Blanc in his book Grammaire des arts et du dessin (1867) and later by the American color theorist Ogden Rood in his book Modern Chromatics (1879). These books were read with great enthusiasm by contemporary painters, particularly Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh, who put the theories into practice in their paintings.

In 1872, Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise, a tiny orange sun and some orange light reflected on the clouds and water in the centre of a hazy blue landscape. This painting, with its striking use of the complementary colors orange and blue, gave its name to the impressionist movement. Monet was familiar with the science of complementary colors, and used them with enthusiasm. He wrote in 1888, 'color makes its impact from contrasts rather than from its inherent qualities....the primary colors seem more brilliant when they are in contrast with their complementary colors.' Orange and blue became an important combination for all the impressionist painters. They all had studied the recent books on color theory, and they know that orange placed next to blue made both colors much brighter. Auguste Renoir painted boats with stripes of chrome orange paint straight from the tube. Paul Cézanne used orange made of touches of yellow, red and ochre against a blue background. But no other painter used complementary colors so often and dramatically as Vincent van Gogh. He created his own oranges with mixtures of yellow, ochre and red, and placed them next to slashes of sienna red and bottle green, and below a sky of turbulent blue and violet. He put an orange moon and stars in a cobalt blue sky. He wrote to his brother Theo of 'searching for oppositions of blue with orange, of red with green, of yellow with violet, searching for broken colors and neutral colors to harmonize the brutality of extremes, trying to make the colors intense, and not a harmony of greys.' Describing his painting, The Night Café, to his brother Theo in 1888, Van Gogh wrote: 'I sought to express with red and green the terrible human passions. The hall is blood red and pale yellow, with a green billiard table in the center, and four lamps of lemon yellow, with rays of orange and green. Everywhere it is a battle and antithesis of the most different reds and greens.'

Just like an artist working with paints, the photographer uses color, or the lack of it, to create specific effects or statements in the images he makes. The travel photographer, who is always looking for bold and striking colors to give power and impact to his work, needs to be constantly on the lookout for such sudden appearances of complimentary colors. Being aware of color theory and how color theory works is just as important as a sound knowlege of composition. Like composition, color theory needs to be remembered in such a way that when complimentary colors are spotted, they are instantly recognised and acted upon, before the situation changes and the shot is lost for ever.

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