Follow the conventions of colour composition to create better images. Part 2: Composing with colour.

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Part 1: Designing with colour

Within a scene, we tend to see relatively large, plain elements as a backdrop to smaller, more distinct ones. The latter catch our attention first and seem closer. This principle is known as ‘figure and ground’, and is important for several reasons.

First, it contradicts the assumption that smaller items will necessarily seem less significant: in fact, they may well dominate.

Second, it tells us that a composition in which figure and ground are not immediately distinguishable may seem lifeless and uninvolving. Elements should be differentiated by size and colour.

Third, the principle of figure and ground combines with our knowledge of colour theory to help us understand the impressions created by colour within a composition.

Warm hues (in the red part of the colour wheel) tend to advance towards the viewer, while cool (blue) hues recede. Therefore, applying a warm colour to a figure will accentuate its tendency to jump out, and cool colours will encourage a ground to recede; reversing this will tend to negate the effect, giving a more balanced and less striking impression.

A small splash of warm colour on a cool background will be more pleasing than the reverse.

It might be assumed that figure elements should also be brighter than grounds, but in fact dark figures against a bright ground are much more acceptable to the human eye. We write in black on a white background, despite having long had the technology to do the reverse, because it seems more natural.

Changing the value (lightness) of the ground can have a strong effect on an image as a whole, especially in graphical compositions made up of uniform colour fields. Light figures on a dark ground seem to emerge from shadows or darkness, making them seem luminous and often mysterious or foreboding, an effect that was fully exploited in Renaissance painting.

A midtoned background either forces figure colours into a narrower range of values (all lighter or all darker than the ground), resulting in a muted or hazy effect. Or, by allowing some figures to be lighter and others darker than the ground, prevents the composition being interpreted in terms of spatial recession, an effect that is visually disorienting but can be graphically rewarding.

Elements that differ most in value from the background will always draw the eye first, almost regardless of differences in hue.

Colours are intensified by being placed on a very dark or very light ground, but their temperature and tendency to advance or recede may also be affected: blue on white can advance, while red always advances against black, even in extremely dark shades, as is powerfully demonstrated in the well-known paintings by Mark Rothko.

Repetition, or rhythm, is an important feature of many compositions. The use of colour can contribute to the effects of repeating lines and shapes: graduation of lightness and saturation can tell us which way movement is going, or reinforce the impression of forms fading off into the distance.

More distant objects appear lighter, less saturated, and less distinct, an effect that can be created by blurring or ‘feathering’ elements or reducing the detail with which they are drawn.

Progressive sequences of colour lead the eye and make the composition more dynamic, while repetitive sequences give a sense of order and balance. Closely spaced repetition of hues creates optical mixing, giving the overall effect of a continuously coloured surface. Similarly, exact repetition of lines, shapes or colour fields – pattern – can allow an area to appear uniform even though it may contain a large amount of detail.

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We instinctively interpret colour and form as if they are part of a real-world scene. The photo above shows an interior receding into the distance. Reduced to a few simple colour fields (below), the image gives a similar impression of perspective and recession. Such effects play a part in how we ‘read’ any graphical composition, whether or not it aims to depict reality.
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