White and Gold and Black and Blue

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard about the internet kerfuffle about the colour of a certain dress.

Some saw a white/gold dress, others a black/blue dress. I personally saw white and gold, and it took a lot of manipulation in Lightroom to make me see black and blue. Some of my friends swore they saw it as black and blue. Whatever colours you see, it threw into light interesting concepts of colour and how everyone views colour in different ways. (In the end, I think almost everyone decided it was a pretty ugly dress whatever colour it was.)

But this isn’t a blog about the dress, I promise.

Someone asked me on tumblr not long ago why I had “colour theory” listed as an inspiration on my photography tumblr and what that meant. Today’s debate reminded me of that, and why colour is actually an important subject for artists – photographers especially – to study.

So what is colour theory?

Colour theory is basically a set of structures to measure the application of, and relationship between, colours. These theories have been built up over time since at least the 15th century, and have evolved using maths, physics and chemistry. Thankfully (for me!) the modern colour theories are a lot easier to grasp and revolve around some basic grounding ideas.

Colour Systems

There are two primary colour systems – methods by which colour is reproduced: additive and subtractive. Additive colour works with anything that emits or radiates light. Your computer monitor and other screens use the additive system and primary colours of Red, Green and Blue (RGB model). In this model, white is the combination of colours and black is the absence of colour. The Subtractive colour system works on the basis of reflected light and also has its own recognised primary colours – Cyan, Magenta and Yellow (CMY model). Unlike RGB, in this model black is the combination of colours and white is the absence of colour, however this system is imperfect. You may have heard of CMYK – this is because in the subtractive model a fourth pigment (called “Key”) is needed to actually create true black.

RGB vs CMYK by m-graphix.com

RGB vs CMYK by m-graphix.com

The Colour Wheel

Sir Issac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colours in 1666. Since then there have been many variations on the theme, but the basic plotting of colours on a wheel allows us to see the primary colours (Red, Blue and Yellow, colours that cannot be mixed or formed by any other combination of colours), secondary colours (formed by mixing the primary colours) and tertiary colours (made by mixing and primary and secondary colour eg. blue-green).

The Colour Wheel by Dr Gil Dekel

The Colour Wheel by Dr Gil Dekel

Colour Harmonies

Colour harmonies are the relationships between colours, and can be easily read using the colour wheel. Dr Gil Dekel on poeticmind.co.uk has made an excellent diagram showing the harmonies and how they can be read on the colour wheel.









Modern day software – like Adobe Kuler (now Adobe Colour) can develop thousands of these harmonies into pleasing visual palettes. It’s like going to a hardware store and picking different paint chips or swatches – some combinations will work better than others and that is ultimately down to their relative relationship on the colour wheel.

So why is colour theory important?

Colour theory is important in all facets of art and design, because of the effect that colours and their combinations can have on the viewer. Interior designers rely on colours and their combinations to create certain moods for certain rooms of a house – for example, a warm, earthy palette for a living room and a cooler, breezier colour scheme for a bathroom. Artists use colour theory to mix and create colours to suit their needs. Photographers can use colour theory to influence composition – utilising colour can make one subject stand out, can create tension within a frame or can be used to create overall harmony.

Even when I’m working with black and white, I will shoot in colour because the greater the scope of colour within an image, the greater the tonality will be in black and white. There will be a whole range of tones in between the black and the white, giving the image range and depth that it wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. Colour is always a consideration.

It’s a powerful but often overlooked part of everyday life. The brilliant thing about colour is that while there are these foundational ideas that we talked about, the way we each perceive and respond to colour and colour combinations is intensely personal. Two people can see the same combination of colours, and yet have very different ideas about whether or not it is visually pleasing. It can affect our environment and mood; it dictates the way we dye our hair, the way we decorate our houses, even the kind of car we drive.

And, obviously, it can spark massive debates online over how we each see a dress.


‘Basic Colour Theory’ http://www.colormatters.com/color-and-design/basic-color-theory

‘Basic Colour Scheme’ http://www.tigercolor.com/color-lab/color-theory/color-theory-intro.htm

‘How to Master Colour Theory’ http://www.creativebloq.com/colour/colour-theory-11121290

‘The Colour Wheel’ http://www.poeticmind.co.uk/research/the-colour-wheel/

‘The Photographer’s Master Guide To Colour’ by Jeff Wignall

‘Trading Spaces – RGB vs CMYK’ http://www.m-graphix.com/trading-spaces-rgb-vs-cmyk/

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