Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Color Theory

To master colors in your photographs, it helps to fully understand how technology represents those colors

This Article Features Photo Zoom

1) Apple Color Picker
What is color theory?
It’s not color management—a science of measuring color physically and describing it mathematically. It’s not color adjustment—techniques for changing a color’s appearance. It’s not color psychology—a social science of charting and describing human response to color. It’s impacted by all three above disciplines (it rests at their intersection), yet it constitutes a separate discipline in and of itself. Color theory is a language that conceptually and perceptually describes the elements of color and their interactions. Part physical, part biological, part cognitive and part psychological (universally, culturally and individually psychological), color theory is perceptually based. Color theory often describes optical responses (which the other color disciplines take into account, but don’t focus on specifically), some of which are described as “illusions,” but are nonetheless perceived.

It doesn’t describe physical absolutes, as color management does. Instead, it describes perception, which is context-sensitive, thus relative rather than absolute. It doesn’t describe the mechanics of changing color appearance, as color adjustment does. Instead, it addresses what to do and why to do it rather than how to do it. It doesn’t describe responses unique to culture or individual, as color psychology does. Instead, it focuses on universal psychological responses to color, such as temperature.

How Can Color Theory Be Used?

Color theory can help describe what’s perceived more precisely. It offers a language that’s shared and reasonably precise. Color theory can help make perception more precise. Language encodes thought, and a more precise and nuanced language can lead to more sensitive perception. Color theory can help analyze what makes some color relationships particularly successful and what makes others less successful. It illuminates the dynamic interactions between the elements of color, which can be used to guide decisions in selecting and adjusting color relationships. Color theory is best used to inform color choices rather than to make them.

2) Adobe Color Picker
Theory lays a foundation for exploration (guiding inquiry toward greater potential and away from less potential). It’s not a substitute for discovery. Jazz musicians Keith Jarrett and Thelonious Monk mastered music theory, but even they were surprised by their most original compositions, which were informed and empowered by theory but not determined by it. Theory is the sum of what we know, but it doesn’t contain what we don’t yet know. It can prime conditions for a breakthrough, but it can’t make one. It can be used to empower a unique or authentic sensibility, but it’s not a substitute for one. If color theory is a language, what is its vocabulary?

3) Chromaticity Diagram
The language of color theory can be confusing, due in part to being not as widely known as it should be and in part to its varied terminology (its vocabulary hasn’t been decisively defined). At its most basic, color consists of three elements—hue (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple), saturation (neutral, semi-neutral, semi-saturated, saturated, super-saturated) and luminosity (dark, light).

Many words can be used to describe the same elements, which leads to confusion. Color is often used to describe hue, which is only one aspect of color. Color is the combination of three elements—hue, saturation and luminosity. Brightness, also called luminosity or value, can be confused with saturation. Saturation, also called intensity or chroma (sometimes confused with hue), can be confused with how much colorant permeates a surface, which, though related, is a separate factor. If you’re confused now, that’s perfectly normal. A widespread adoption of a consistent set of words would go a long way toward making communication about color more precise, but it hasn’t happened yet.


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