Painters are masters of colour, they must be or a painting could never be created. Photographers on the other hand… not so much. Photographers by nature of the medium have colours presented at the click of a button, so there’s much to be learned from the painter.
Now before the photographers get all upset at me, I’m not having a go at photographers here, I’m just trying to make a point. Photographers can of course master colour, just as painters do, it’s just that the entry point for photographers is different. When a photograph is captured, the colour isn’t derived from the imagination of the photographer, it’s already there, it’s seen rather than created and can be modified after the fact if the photographer chooses.
For painters, colour must be studied and experienced to create an artwork in the first place, colour can’t be overlooked, they’re chosen and mixed on the painters palette and are not easily changed once applied, so the painter develops an awareness of colour early on, while photographers, in my observations at least, are more likely to develop this awareness over time.
Personally, I continue to study and experiment with colour in my photography, selective shifts in colour can completely transform a photograph. Colour is possibly the single most important tool available to shape and form the expression of a photograph, so as photographers, why wouldn’t we learn from the painters?
A few days ago I was able to visit the ‘Impressionists’ exhibition in Canberra. Claude Monet’s ‘Impression Sunrise’ was on display among other impressionist paintings of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Naturally I was keen to experience the artwork for myself, not only to enjoy them for what they are, but to engage in their use of colour first hand, so I’ll share some thoughts.
The impressionists of course weren’t into detailed realism, they created ‘impressions’ of a scene, using interactions of colour and shape to describe a mood, and effects of light and movement.
Many impressionist paintings, including Impression Sunrise, lack very light or dark tones, they’re using colour variation rather than tonal variation for their effect, with colours chosen to interact and play off each other. This is an immediate departure from the way most photographs are captured, which often contain an entire range of tones from black through to white, or near white, while Monet often departed from the use of deep blacks, preferring to tint shadows towards blues or other colours.
Fortunately, our perception of colour hasn’t changed over the years like technology does, so the principles of colour used by Monet and other impressionists are just as accessible today, and if we’re true to ourselves we’ll find our own ways of using colour, just as artists have done for many years.
I had read somewhere, courtesy of Dr Margaret Livingstone, that if ‘Impression Sunrise’ is converted into a black and white image, the luminance of the sun becomes the same as its surround, an effect which contributes to it’s impact, so I thought I’d give it a go using my own photograph of the painting. By using my own photograph I can be certain there haven’t been any strange modifications, and I’ve done what I can to replicate the colour of the original by profiling my camera to the lighting at the exhibition (technical stuff), similarly to the way I would handle art reproduction in my studio, though it can never be a perfect match under these conditions.
And sure enough, the black and white version does cause the sun to disappear into the background.
Also, you may be thinking the colour directly behind the sun in Impression Sunrise is blue, but from what I can see the area directly behind the sun is actually closer to grey, perhaps with a slight tint towards blue (if my profiling has worked under the circumstances).
In the diagram below (top left), I’ve extracted the colour of the sun and its background, you can see how luminous the sun looks when placed on its background, it appears to glow and almost shimmer, but on the white background (top right), the same colour looks pretty dull. Painters know only too well how colours are affected by their surround, these observations have been made for many centuries at least.
The orange rectangle below has some triangular shapes inside. The orange is taken from the sky above the sun in Impression Sunrise, and the triangles are using the near grey from behind the sun. This time the ‘grey’ appears to have a blueish tint as it reacts to the orange surround, effects like this are also seen in the painting itself, showing how use of subtle colours and near neutrals can be just as exciting as bright and saturated colours.
Here I’ve tried something different by taking the colours of Impression Sunrise and blotting them into a new image to explore the relationships between them. Most of the colours are quite muted ‘pastels’ tending towards grey, with the exception of the sun with a much higher saturation. Rather than write about the colour harmonies here, I’ll let you explore the colour relationships for yourself. In particular, consider the relationships between warm and cool colours, and the relationships between similar colours.
If that wasn’t enough, here’s another way to explore the colour, this time plotted three dimensionally in the LAB colour space, with white at the top, black at the bottom, and the colours distributed similarly to a colour wheel, as indicated by the axis. This plot shows the lack of true whites and blacks in the painting, and the transition of colour between warm and cool. I’m not sure what Monet would say to this, but I often like to explore the world from multiple perspectives, especially where art and science mix.
I’m sure a lot could be written about Impression Sunrise and impressionist paintings, but here I wanted to demonstrate some basic colour principles, so I’ve largely ignored the content of the painting and it’s meaning and focused on the basic colour relationships. Rather than extend this any further towards a theory of colour principles, I’ll just leave you to ponder the colours you gravitate to, and explore them for yourself