Color As A Universal Language – Mark Rothko

Sometimes the things we resist influence us the most. For me, this was certainly the case with the paintings of Mark Rothko.
As a young man I found myself alienated from many modernist works. I felt they were overly intellectual; you needed a degree to begin to approach them much less understand them. They didn’t meet the audience half way. Some of them even needed critical interpretation to be fully resolved.
Nonetheless, my intensely emotional reactions to Mark Rothko’s paintings were undeniable. Standing before these fields of color produced a physical sensation, much like listening to music. Rothko was able to communicate powerful emotions with the simplest means. Often his canvases were composed no more than two rectangles inside the larger rectangular field of the canvas or as few as three colors. Unlike DeKooning, gesture isn’t what communicates emotion – Rothko’s canvases are stained.  Rothko’s use of scale, quite different than Albers’, also impressed me; the large fields immerse you in the sensation of color, further intensifying it.
Rothko’s painting was more than an exploration of optics, it was also a spiritual quest. It’s not just color-for-color’s sake; it’s color placed in the service of the human spirit. Upon further study, I found that many early modernists shared a similar spiritual impulse and used abstraction in a quest for a universal language that reached beyond time and culture. For me this was the link between the modernists I appreciated and the ones that left me cold. It was a quest I resonated with. It started a chain reaction within my thinking about and appreciation of art. I continue to search for similar qualities in my own work.
Who are your influences and what do they mean to you?
Find out more about my influences here.

Julianne Kost’s CS6 Lookup Adjustment Test File

“The new Color Lookup Adjustment Layer in Photoshop CS 6 has several options (3DLUT File, Abstract, and Device Link) that are used to load different “looks”. These looks are achieved by remapping every color in the image to a different one using a lookup table (LUT). I think that many photographers and designers will find their resulting color shifts quite interesting. You can think of these tables as a sort of meta-adjustment, a way to apply pre-packaged adjustments (sometimes lots of adjustments together) in one step.”
Julianne Kost has created a file that you can download free and test all the new CS6 Lookup adjustments on your image. Simply open the file and replace the contents of the Smart Object in it with one of your own images. It’s a great way to visually compare the various results in a ring around.
Find out more and download the file here.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Rendering Intents Compared

gamut clipping

gamut compression


Your choice of rendering intent tells a color management system how to handle color conversions between different color spaces. This is particularly important when converting colors from a wider-gamut color space (such as an editing space like ProPhoto) to a smaller-gamut color space (like a printer color space). You’ll get different results, even when using the same ICC profile, depending on the rendering intent you choose for a color conversion. You have four choices; perceptual, relative colorimetric, absolute colorimetric, and saturation.

What’s the difference between these four rendering intents?

Use a perceptual rendering intent for printing images with highly saturated colors. Watch it carefully. To deliver very saturated colors, it may lighten an image or shift the hue of specific colors. Both side-effects can be compensated for with output-specific adjustments.

Relative Colorimetric
Use a relative colorimetric rendering intent for printing images where the luminosity structure is most important. You may get slightly less saturated colors but brightness values will be most stable with this rendering intent. This makes it the ideal choice for near-neutral and black and white images.

Absolute Colorimetric
Use an absolute colorimetric rendering intent for making a proof of one device on another, like making a proof of an offset press on an inkjet printer. It’s not useful for making the best inkjet print; it will limit the results the printer delivers. Note, you can’t simulate a printer with a greater gamut than the device you’re printing on, only one with a smaller gamut.

Use a saturation rendering intent for eye-catching graphics where color impact is more important than color accuracy , like pie charts. It will so much saturation it will distort continuous tone images in an adverse way.
Here’s the color geek explanation.

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6 Simple Steps To Good Color Management

Color management is rocket science. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to drive the rocket. Instead, be an astronaut. With a few simple steps you can achieve consistent, high quality color with your images every time.

These are the six simple steps to good color management.

1 – Make Profiled Conversions
Assign an ICC profile to all image files either during Raw conversion or scanning. Use appropriate profiles to make conversions into other color spaces with derivative files only. Minimize the number of conversions made.

2 – Calibrate Your Monitor Using Hardware
Once a month, use a colorimeter to build an ICC profile for your monitor. Minimize the influence of other light sources during characterization. Use the colorimeter’s software to help you set monitor brightness between 90 and 100 and choose White Point D65 and Gamma 2.2. Check the results with know target images afterward.

3 – Set Good Photoshop Color Settings
In Photoshop’s Color Settings (in the Edit Menu) Set Color Management Policies to Preserve Embedded Profiles and Ask When Opening / Pasting. And, choose a wide gamut device neutral editing space. Start with North American Prepress Defaults and then change RGB to ProPhoto RGB.

4 – Softproof
Simulate the appearance of a print before printing. Go to View : Proof Setup : Custom and choose the profile you intend to print with. Check Simulate Paper Color and choose a rendering intent of either Perceptual or Relative Colorimetric. Make output-specific adjustments before printing. Use these adjustments only when printing these media.

5 – Navigate Your Printer Driver Correctly
Use Photoshop / Lightroom or your printer driver to manage color – not both. In general, favor using Photoshop/Lightroom as this is the most versatile allowing you to use custom output profiles.

6 – Control Your Environment
Edit and evaluate your images in neutral surroundings. Minimize the effect of extraneous light sources, such as glare on monitors or backlighting. Evaluate proofs and prints in appropriate lighting.

There’s much more that can be said about each of these topics – but, not much more to do. Take these steps and you’ll be well on your way to achieving consistent, high-quality results with your images.


Read more on Color Management here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Simultaneous Contrast

How red is red? That depends in part on its context. We see colors in relationship to other colors in our field of vision. The appearance of any one color is modified by the presence of other colors. (This is a perceptual effect, not a physical effect; while we experience it, we cannot measure it physically.)

Once you identify the elements in play, you can predict the effect. Simultaneous contrast can occur between any one or multiple components of the three elements of color – luminosity, hue, or saturation.

Place dark colors next to light colors and the dark colors will appear darker and the light colors will appear lighter.
Place cool colors next to warm colors and the cool colors will appear cooler while the warm colors will appear warmer. (Additionally, complementary hues increase each other’s saturation.)

Place saturated colors next to less saturated colors and the desaturated colors will appear less saturated while the saturated colors will appear more saturated. (Additionally, the desaturated color will appear to contain a cast of the saturated hue’s complement.)

Want to make a color appear lighter? Make it lighter or make surrounding colors darker or both. Want to make a color appear warmer? Make it warmer or make surrounding colors cooler or both. Want to make a color appear more saturated? Make it more saturated or make surrounding colors less saturated or both.

Contrast (or lack thereof) is the engine that drives color dynamics. To intensify a visual effect, increase the contrast in the appropriate components of color. This effect is intensified between adjacent colors. It is further intensified if one color surrounds another, partially or entirely. (If a color dynamic is particularly intense it may create the visual appearance of a line separating the two fields of color. Op artists often use these effects to create highly dynamic visual effects that appear to pulsate or move.)

Color management doesn’t yet accommodate these kinds of perceptual effects. Standard color correction strategies don’t tend to address them. But you can incorporate them into your color adjustment methods for greater precision and/or expression. All you need to do is take note of them and make appropriate compensations to achieve the result you desire.

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One of the most distinctive features of a visual artist’s use of color is their use of saturation.
Many photographers are often asked, “Are you a black and white or color photographer?”  (Curiously other visual artist’s are rarely asked this question.) While many people who ask it don’t mean it to be, it’s a loaded question. There’s often a latent assumption that you can’t do both well. In fact, work with one can strengthen work with another. Moreover,  the question suggests that black and white (and shades of gray) are not colors, when in fact they are very specific colors – neutral colors. And, the question does not address with any specificity how a photographer uses more saturated color. Curiously, this question is rarely asked of painters and filmmakers. A more useful question might be, “How saturated is your palette?”
There are essentially six distinct levels of saturation – neutral, semi-neutral, reduced saturation, fully saturated, highly saturated, and super-saturated.
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Color Analysis

To better see color within an image it can help to abstract it. By de-emphasizing an image’s representational qualities you can more easily direct your attention to the color relationships within it. In short, you can see them better because you’re not distracted by other concerns.
Using Photoshop, there are many ways to modify an image in order to better reveal it’s color structure.

You can blur an image. Blurring an image reduces detail so that you can more easily see the basic composition and the color relationships within it, without getting hung up on the details. (Duplicate the background layer and apply the filter Gaussian Blur.)

Blur an image substantially and you can reduce an image to a field of color. Compositional elements are significantly downplayed, leaving pure color. (Duplicate the background layer and apply the filter Gaussian Blur with a stronger setting.)

Pixellate an image and you can reduce an image to blocks of color. Composition is eliminated while contrast between colors is more pronounced than in a flat field of color. (Try Filter: Pixellate: Mosaic. This works best for lower resolution files or copies of files.)

Average an image and you can reduce all the colors in an image to one. (Duplicate the Background Layer and apply the filter Average – found under Blur.) This often confirms the dominant color in a composition. Well balanced color photographs containing a variety of hues tend to average towards gray.)
While accents and other important colors can also be used, the dominant color is an excellent choice to further analyze color relationships in an image using Blend Modes. With this technique you can see the variety found in the separate components of color within an image – Luminosity, Saturation, Color, and Hue. (Change the Blend Mode of the averaged layer to the desired color component.)

With a Blend Mode of Hue, all values in an image will be driven to the same hue. This will help you see variety in luminosity and saturation more clearly.

With a Blend Mode of Saturation, all values in an image will be driven to the same saturation. This will help you see variety in luminosity and hue more clearly.

With a Blend Mode of Color, all values in an image will be driven to the same hue and saturation. This will help you see variety in luminosity (the tonal structure) more clearly. (This variant is often the most useful as it is the easiest to interpret. With repeated analysis of many different images, you’re likely to note that images with less variety in hue and saturation (particularly neutral ones) will require more luminosity contrast to have impact. By the same token, images with a great deal of variety in hue and saturation will often appear overly harsh with excessive contrast.)

With a Blend Mode of Luminosity, all values in an image will be driven to the same luminosity. You’ll eliminate contrasts in value which will help you see variety in hue and saturation more clearly.
This type of analysis will better reveal the color relationships at work within an image. You can use the information you’ve gathered by analyzing color relationships in an image not only to better understand it but also to make predictions about how you might improve them.
Increasing contrast in one or more of the elements of color (hue, saturation, luminosity) will increase separation in a composition; conversely, decreasing contrast will create greater unity.
Typically, well structured images use a large amount of contrast in one color component, a medium amount of contrast in a second component, and a small amount of contrast in a third component.
Read more with my color theory ebooks.
View more in my color DVDS.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

The Temperature of Color – Warm or Cool

An essential quality of color is temperature. Temperature can be used to attain a color balance. Temperature can be used to enhance spatial relationships within an image. Temperature can be used to elicit psychological responses within the viewer. Understanding and exploring the dynamics of temperature in color can benefit any visual artist.

There are physical characteristics of color linked to temperature. The color temperature of light (Kelvin degrees) is determined by measuring a black body radiator (an object heated so that it emits light). As the physical temperature of the object rises, color transitions from red (long wavelengths – low energy) to blue (short wavelengths – high energy) through ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). When it comes to light sources, physically, blue is warmer than red.

There are also psychological qualities of color linked to temperature. Psychologically, blue is cooler than red. These associative qualities of color with regard to temperature are almost universally accepted. This is due in large part to our physical environment – water is blue, plants are green, sunshine is yellow, fire is red.

Using the qualities of one sense (touch) to describe the qualities of another (sight) can be a tenuous affair and may lead to ambiguity and confusion. The more precise a language is the more useful it is. The language of HSL (hue, saturation, luminosity) is a very precise language. When using the language of HSL, hue values mark a position measured in degrees on a color wheel. A circle has 360 degrees, so the scale is 0 – 359.

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