Colour theory is an important part of visual art, photography included. Beyond white balance, which all photographers are aware of but is more of a technical issue than an artistic one, combinations of colours within an image can have a huge impact on the visual experience. What’s more, careful application of colour theory can be used to reinforce the intention of an image.
This week, I happened across an app from Adobe that I had never heard of but offers a neat resource to get a better grip on the theory of colour and explore colour combinations that you like and could work in your images. It’s called Adobe Color CC, and it can be accessed by anyone for free, although if you want to save colour schemes, you’ll need an Adobe account.
The idea is simple – there’s a colour wheel with five controls that you can position as you wish to create schemes of five colours. This can be entirely customized, or you can select from various colour harmonies that are based on colour theory – complementary, analagous or monochromatic, for example. The selected scheme appears in a row of blocks below, and for each block, you’re given the RGB values and the Hex codes (which are used in coding to specify the colours of web page elements). You can also import an image and create a colour scheme based on that image, with several colour mood options that will automatically select different combinations.
I guess this app is mostly intended for graphic artists, but I think it’s a great tool for photographers looking to explore colour through experimentation. Not only can you get an idea of what colours and combinations you have a taste for and consequently direct your subject choices and compositions accordingly, but you can use Adobe Color when developing your Raw files to get ideas for processing approaches or even for precise colour matching with pre-existing schemes or between images. I recommend taking a look and seeing how it could help you!
If you’re going to create photography as art – and that’s my aim here – then I guess you need to know what ‘art’ is. Of course, there’s no definitive answer to this, so to know what art is means to know what art is for you. Coming up with an answer to this isn’t easy.
“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced and … then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling – that is the activity of art.”
Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, 1890
This is one of the best definitions of art I’ve come across because I think there are two main facets to art, and this definition neatly encompasses both.
The first facet is the visual. Tolstoy refers to all forms of art by including “movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words”, but I think these can be simplified to the medium and execution. In photography, the medium is obviously images and the execution is the visual design of these images. Lines, shapes, colours, perspective, scale, detail, focus, motion and, perhaps most importantly, the balance of these elements. Intentional design is what makes order out of a messy world and creates the satisfying visual experience of art.
The second facet is what Tolstoy refers to as the ‘feeling’. This is more complex than the visual aspect of art and more difficult to define – let’s think of it as the idea that art should evoke a response in the viewer. This response is normally thought to arise from a narrative, a ‘Thing-The-Artist-Is-Saying’. A striking landscape with a strong atmosphere might produce feelings of awe and wonder. A journalistic war photograph might strike horror into the viewer. A tender portrait that reveals a person’s inner vulnerability may well stir empathy. These are elements that make the experience of viewing art more than just visual.
The second facet – the ‘Thing-The-Artist-Is-Saying’ – is probably what most people think of as being the qualifier for art. Without this, it’s just a picture, you could argue. For me, it’s not so clear cut. I agree that art should evoke a feeling, but that ‘feeling’ does not just sit alongside the visual experience, it depends on the visual experience.
A purely visual experience – an abstract painting for example – can elicit a response alone. Think of Mondrian’s abstract grids, Rothko’s panels of colour, Picasso’s most abstract cubist compositions. These are all deeply captivating pieces of art, yet there is no conceptual engagement beyond the creation of a two-dimensional visual experience. Conversely, a hugely powerful and significant moment can be photographed without any attention to visual design, and the impact will almost certainly be lost. For me, there can be no ‘feeling’ without visual design, and so it is the visual aspect that is the most fundamental in art. The visual design is the qualifier.
Art for me
My artistic journey started many years ago with a great interest in graphic design – I very nearly made my career in that field. For me, graphic design is the application of the most fundamental aspects of art, and that idea has followed me into fine art and now photography. My studies of artists focused on the visual aspects – the colours of the Impressionists, the compositions of the Cubists, the representations of movement by the Futurists. My own drawings and paintings have always centred on the compositions rather than the concepts, and now in my photography, composition and balance are central. I don’t ignore deeper concepts, and I agree that they add layers when they can be included. But my primary aim is to take the random fluctuations of the world around us and create from it images with coherent, response-inducing visual design.
The Anthropocene Project, for which Burtynsky is working with filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, aims to highlight the ‘human signature’ being left on the planet in the so-called Anthropocene era – a proposed new epoch in which human activity is having a greater effect on the planet than the forces of nature. As part of this project, Burtynsky has photographed some of the largest extraction sites in the World, creating stunning images of the scars we are leaving on the Earth.
What strikes me first and foremost in these images is the scale. These are alien landscapes, often photographed from above to create images that appear to be abstract compositions until you spot the clues – a tiny vehicle or a building – as to what they really are. Indeed, at first glance, some of them could be mistaken for extreme macro images, and I find that fascinating – photography at this immense scale can produce images that look similar to those at the other end of the spectrum.
The images also have wonderful compositions, creating patterns with line and colour that give the eye so much to look at. Just look at Phosphor Tailings Pond #4 below – could the balance between the flat green area and the strange textures of the white area be any better? I can barely take my eyes off it, unless to look at Saw Mills #1, in which I love the contrasts and colours.
And of course, it’s not just the visual impact – when you know what these things are, these images are very thought-provoking. Such large-scale destruction of natural environments to gather resources for our own benefit is morally questionable at best, and you can’t get away from the issues when these images present them so strikingly.
Already, these images are inspiration for me. Not just because of the awe that they inspire, and not because I want to try anything similar. What has captured my imagination is how beautiful patterns can be seen at every scale, from the tiniest patterns in nature to these huge man-made sites. I think it would be interesting to explore these patterns at different scales, and it seems like a good basis for a project.
I’ve been taking photographs for eight years. In that time, I’ve learnt a lot about how cameras work and how to use them. I even spent a couple of years writing about cameras in photography magazines. So it’s fair to say I know how to take a picture. At least, I know how to use the camera settings to get a sharp, well-exposed image. And from (too many) hours loitering in photography groups on social media, that’s what many hobbyists are content with – a photograph that is focused on what it’s supposed to be, not blurry, and reasonably exposed. That’s enough to get a host of ‘great shot’ comments and a raft of empty likes. Well, I want more from photography.
I have always been an artist, and for me, photography is just a part of art. What ultimately matters to me is not that the subject is in focus and the exposure is ‘good’. Of course, these elements are important, but they’re things you shouldn’t really notice – what really matters is the impact of the final image. And in order to create photographs that have impact, there’s an enormous amount to learn about photography as an art and in the wider context of art as a whole.
I have thousands and thousands of sharp, well-exposed photographs in my archive – ‘great’ shots by the standards of those online groups. But to me, 99% are exceedingly average. I’ve done the technical bit, I know what I’m doing. Now it’s time to learn more about the art of photography. By reading about it, by studying others’ work, and, above all, by doing it. This blog is a record of this discovery – a journey from technically sound but average photographs to images with impact. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.
The blog has three elements:
My sketchbook – explorations of my own photographs and contemplation on their artistic merits.
My notebook – information and contemplation on the art of photography.
My scrapbook – links, clippings and inspiration from around the Internet and beyond.
To see (what I consider) my best work and buy prints, you can also visit my portfolio site.