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The photographers’ color wheel rendered by Apple.

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The painters’ color wheel painted by Johannes Itten.

In color theory, one of the primary uses of color wheels is to plot complementary colors.

Painters and photographers use this information to create neutral colors. Painters mix complementary colors to get more neutral hues. Photographers add complementary colors to remove color casts, making neutral colors appear more neutral.

But photographers and painters apply different complements. Photographers identify three primaries and complements; red and cyan, green and magenta, blue and yellow. Painters identify three primaries and complements; red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple. Why do they use different complements? Painters have to address the impurities in the pigments they’re mixing. Photographers deal with pure light.

From a practical standpoint both types of artists learn to achieve the effects they want to achieve. From a conceptual or theoretical standpoint the difference is significant – and they share the same theories but their application of those theories differs. Photographers and painters should talk to each other more.

Photographers can enrich their understanding of color if they become familiar with the longer richer history painters have had with color; and at the same time painters can refine their theories and produce stronger effects by using photographic complements.

Physically and biologically our eyes do specific things. By using maximum hue contrast, complementary colors in close proximity to one another create optical effects: they make each other look more intense; any lines between them becomes more pronounced, often producing a light line, which can appear to flash if the eye moves back and forth across it; if made very small (like scanned pixels or printed halftone dots) they average to a neutral color. Artists use these effects to make more powerful visual statements.

Optically photographic complements are correct. You can test and prove this yourself. To do this, take advantage of the retinal after images your eyes produce. Simply stare at a solid patch of color for more than twenty seconds and then shift your gaze to a neutral field of color, like a white wall. The color you’ll see will be the photographic complement. So, if you want to take maximum advantage of the optical effects generated by complementary colors, choose photographic complements.

Finally, color theory can be very useful. Artists frequently create consistent color structures (some call them color harmonies), much like the tonal structures or scales musicians. They often use color wheels to plot these relationships (not unlike a musician plots a circle of fifths to identify musical harmonies). They draw geometric figures inside a circle of color to identify regular intervals between the colors chosen; straight lines for pairs, triangles for trios, rectangles for quartets, etc. There’s no ideal structure. Different structures generate different effects, both optical and psychological – and it’s useful to know what those are. What matters most is that a color structure is created, rather than color chaos. The colors identified as complements define a color wheel. Once again, because of the impurities in pigments, painters distort their color wheels (expanding the oranges and reducing the cool blues) to help them identify which colors to mix to make neutral or more neutral colors, but the unintended consequence of doing this is that they plot color structures on a distorted color wheel. Their ideal theories are skewed by physical imperfections.

Long after his death, it was noted that pointillist painter Seurat, who started a whole school of painters who used broken bits of complementary colors rather than blended less intense colors, could have achieved even richer visual effects if he had adjusted his color choices. Viewers experience visual effects with their eyes. And the photographer’s color wheel is aligned with our eyes.

Learn more about Color Theory here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.

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Read our conversation here.

View more 12 Great Photographs collections here.

Explore The Essential Collection Of Quotes By Photographers.

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Enjoy this rare interview with photographer Wynn Bullock.

Read 24 great quotes by Wynn Bullock.

View 12 Great Photographs By Wynn Bullock here.

Explore The Essential Collection Of Quotes By Photographers.

Explore 12 More 12 Great Photographs Collections here.

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Enjoy this collection of quotes by photographer Pete Turner.

“If photography has developed a special language it should be welcomed as an extension of our senses and seen for what it is – the first faulting steps of an infant medium towards maturity.” – Pete Turner

“It has been said a thousand times that photography is a universal language. To accept this notion is to ignore the fact that its meanings cannot be translated in anything other than a woolly and imprecise manner.” – Pete Turner

“What have I done wrong?” -he said later.” Nothing, I think. I am steadily surprised that there are so many photographers that reject manipulating reality, as if that was wrong. Change reality! If you don’t find it, invent it!” – Pete Turner

“Looking at photographs, like taking them, can be joyful, sensuous pleasure. Looking at photographs of quality can only increase that pleasure.” – Pete Turner

“Color takes my work into another dimension. It’s the way I see. I’ve always been drawn to the colors of nature, and nature is a wonderful teacher.” – Pete Turner

“Ultimately, simplicity is the goal – in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it’s easily the most essential.” – Pete Turner

“A photographers work is given shape and style by his personal vision. It is not simply technique, but the way he looks at life and the world around him.” – Pete Turner

Find out more about Pete Turner here.

Explore 12 Great Photographs By Great Photographers

Explore The Essential Collection Of Quotes By Photographers.

Explore The Essential Collection Of Documentaries On Photographers.

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Gabra women dancing, North Horr, Kenya.

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Enjoy this collection of photographs by David DuChemin.

Find out more about David DuChemin here.

Read David DuChemin’s Q&A here.

Read David DuChemin’s Favorite Quotes here.

Preview his new online course The Compelling Frame now.

Istanbul, Turkey

Enjoy this collection of quotes by photographer David DuChemin.

“The cliché comes not in what you shoot but in how you shoot it.”  – David DuChemin

“Learning to see is not about having open eyes; it’s about having an open mind.” – David DuChemin

“The more curious we are the more creative we become.” – David DuChemin

“Creativity is about two things; the way we think, and the way we turn those thoughts into reality.” – David DuChemin

“It is we show put the humanity, the vision, and the poetry into our photographs.” – David DuChemin

“When we look at our photographs and find not the slightest reflection of ourselves, it is a good sign that our images have lost their souls.” – David DuChemin

“The idea of authenticity carries such value because we know how difficult it is to be fully ourselves.” – David DuChemin

“Anyone can take a picture of poverty; it’s easy to focus on the dirt and hurt of the poor. It’s much harder—and much more needful—to pry under that dirt and reveal the beauty and dignity of people that, but for their birth into a place and circumstance different from our own, are just like ourselves. I want my images to tell the story of those people and to move us beyond pity to justice and mercy.”  – David DuChemin

“A representational photograph says, ‘This is what Vienna looked like.’ An interpretational photograph goes one better and says, ‘This is what Vienna was like. This is how I felt about it.”  – David DuChemin

“‘What is it about?’ is not the same as ‘What happened?’” – David DuChemin

“It’s the difference between your wife’s passport photograph and the portraits you took when you got engaged. Both may have been created with similar technology, but what stands in that great gulf between them are the passion you have for your wife, the knowledge you have of her personality, and your willingness to use your craft, time, and energy to express that. One says, “She looks like this.” The other says, “This is who she is to me. It’s how I feel about her. See how amazing she is.” – David DuChemin

“Perfection is overrate, and not to be confused with mastery.” – David DuChemin

“Photographers, like few other kinds of artists I can imagine, have an insanely personal relationship with their gear.”  – David DuChemin

“Knowing failure is part of our process, and leads to new ideas, stronger work, and more honest questions, liberates us to peer, a little less frightened, into the unknown.”  – David DuChemin

“You yourself are unique–you have ways of seeing your world that are unlike those of anyone else–so find ways to more faithfully express that, and your style will emerge.” – David DuChemin 

“The real failure is to rob this world of the contribution only you can make, and to fail to make work that truly gives you that ‘this is what I was created to do’ feeling that has no equal.” – David DuChemin

“I  will never reach the end of this journey. I’ll never arrive at a point where others have nothing to teach me.” – David DuChemin

Find out more about David DuChemin here.

Read David DuChemin’s Q&A here.

Read David DuChemin’s Favorite Quotes here.

Preview his new online course The Compelling Frame now.


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