Colour Impressions

Painters begin a mastery of colour from the very first brush stroke, a painting could never be created without this physical experience.  Colour is chosen and mixed on the palette and is not easily changed once applied, an awareness of colour develops early in the process.  Photographers on the other hand have colour presented at the click of a button, in most cases the colours are found and not made.  Photographers seem to develop an awareness of colour over time, while technical skills, concepts of geometric composition or story tend to be learned first.

I had little awareness of colour when I first picked up a camera.  Just making a correct exposure was challenging enough, arranging the objects in a scene and capturing the right timing were enough to keep me occupied before colour even knocked on the door.   Even now in the digital era, the basic colour controls do little to educate about how colour works, and we can easily miss what the painter learns through the application and mixing of colour.

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, the impressionists were masters of colour and challenged the established conventions of the time.

Monet Impression Sunrise
Monet Impression Sunrise

Rather than emphasise detail or form in a literal way, the impressionists used interactions of colour, shape and pattern to create a more sensory representation of a scene, colour itself was used to depict a mood and the effects of light and movement.

Many impressionist paintings, including Impression Sunrise, lack very light or dark tones, and use colour variation rather than tonal variation for their effect, with colours chosen to interact and play off each other.  This is a departure from the way most photographs are captured, which often contain an entire range of tones from black through to white, or near white, Monet often departed from the use of deep blacks, preferring to tint shadows towards blue or other colours, to emphasise colour relationships over tonal ones.

The principles of colour used by Monet and other impressionists are just as accessible today as they ever were, advances in technology don’t make them any less significant.  Our new found ability to pump saturation and contrast into a photograph with a couple of digital sliders is like an insect attracted to the moon, and can be a huge distraction from the careful application of colour.  If we’re true to ourselves we’ll find our own ways of using colour, just as artists have done for many years.

I came across an interesting study of Impression Sunrise by Dr Margaret Livingstone.  She showed that the luminosity of the sun is actually the same as the surrounding sky even though it appears much more vibrant, and this contributes contributes to the impact of the image, so I thought I’d try it for myself with a photograph I took myself.

Sure enough, as you can see in the black and white version below, the sun blends into the background and uses colour interaction to simulate the luminosity we would find in the real world.  Monet has placed a highly saturated orange sun on top of a neutral colour to create the effect, but I think there’s even more than that.  The sky above the sun is also orange, and by placing a small neutral area within an orange sky it takes on a blueish tint, further increasing the impact of the sun.

Monet Impression Sunrise black and white
Monet Impression Sunrise luminosity

To study these effects I’ve extracted the colour of the sun and its background, and it becomes clear just how bright the orange appears on grey, rather than the white where it looks dull and lifeless.

Colour on colour
Colour study of the sun in Impression Sunrise

The study below simulates the colour of the orange sky and the neutral area around the sun, when placed against the orange, the grey takes on a bluish tint, which is what I think makes the sun pop even more.

Colour Impressions
Colour study of the sky and neutral patch behind the sun

Below I explore the colours in Impression Sunrise without the distraction of recognisable objects,  I’ll let you explore them for yourself.

Impression sunrise colour study
Impression Sunrise colours

Here’s another way to explore the colour, this time plotted three dimensionally, it shows the main colours used are complementary (opposites) and there’s a lack of true whites and blacks.

Colour map
Impression Sunrise colours plotted in 3D

I’m sure a lot more could be written about Impression Sunrise and impressionist paintings, but here I wanted to demonstrate some basic colour principles and encourage some thinking about colour in photography if you’re not already.

John Hardiman