The Power of Color – Part 2

Hello!  Welcome back to the world of color theory.

In part 1 of The Power of Color, you were introduced to the color wheel and color groupings were discussed.  We talked about the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of color in addition to looking at the natural analogous groups of warm and cool hues in order to create visual harmony and proper color balance within your photographic images.  In this wrap up, we are going to look at color pairings and color palette combinations that will help enhance your images  giving them greater visual impact.  Let’s get started!

In order to best understand complementary color pairings, it might help to look at the color wheel again.


The way it works is this: primary colors are positioned on the exact opposite side of their secondary complement hues.  Another way to figure out the complement to a primary color?  Mix the other two primaries together and they yield the complement hue of the primary that was not included in the mixture.  Example: The primaries are red, yellow, and blue.  If you want the to find out the complement of yellow, mix blue and red together and you get purple and that is the complement of yellow.  That being said, here are the ways hues pair themselves.


Red and Green


Orange and Blue


Yellow and Purple

You might recognize these complementary partners as being recognizable because they are associated with holidays or as team colors within the NFL or of college signature colors. You see red and green?  You might immediately think of Christmas. Orange and blue?  Those are the NFL Bronco colors or the University of Florida Gator colors.  Yellow and purple are the colors associated with Easter as well as of the Minnesota Vikings or of the college East Carolina University or Louisiana State University.  Complementary hues visually balance themselves out because they were designed that way and  can be used within the photographic medium to demonstrate visual balance.  That being said, just like in the part 1, correct use of color is just as essential as good strong composition or proper usage of space, or visual texture.  Color is a tool that can strengthen a good photographic image and provide not only something that makes it a little more eye catching but also visually balanced.

Here are some images that take in account complementary color pairings.


Red is a powerful color because it provides such a strong visual impact very naturally.  It can sometimes be so powerful that it draws all of the attention to itself completely detracting from what an image really is about.  It is completely possible to use red in the background to emphasize something other than itself though.  See how it’s juxtaposed within the background with the green praying mantis in the foreground?  You can see the red but the effect of it is softened to be not quite so strong by shading it with black.  When you change the value/lightness or darkness of a color by shading it with black or tinting it with white, you decrease it’s natural visual impact.  Using the red only helps to provide emphasis on the green subject matter. Also, note that despite the Christmas associations that can come with red and green you don’t immediately think Christmas with this image. Red and green are also awesome combinations to use within food photography specifically because red has physiological effects of slightly raising metabolism or inspiring hunger within people or making their mouths water.  Here is a great example of food photography that really utilizes the red and green combination well.


Let’s look at the orange and blue pairing now.


Sometimes you can’t always find a complementary pairing happen naturally.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t use it or do a little finagling to make it happen.  This image was taken during the Fall season when the colors worked themselves out to be analogously warm (remember?  That’s the side of the color wheel that is red, orange, and yellow.)  I just happened to be in a geographic region where the foliage was a very strong and solid orange base and so I suggested that my subjects consider blue as a good color for their wardrobe since it was the complement to the orange they would be surrounded by.  Another thing that is a little blue to balance out the orange tones of the background?  Note the color of the lighting within the frame.  It has a little bit of a cool/blue-grey cast to it.

Let’s not forget about yellow and purple.  Neither of the two colors are popular – yellow because it takes more chemicals in the eye to process the color than any other and thus it is stressful to look at and purple because it’s usually strongly disliked by men and that automatically cuts down the natural fanbase.   Still, when you put the two together, they really illustrate some great visual balance and harmony.


The subject matter of this image was not purple but the lighting within the situation provided a great purple wash in the frame of the image providing the balance needed for the yellow light that was emitting in the background.  Something else about purple is that it is commonly associated with deep rooted emotion.  When you use purple as a tool to help establish or enhance the mood of a photographic image, this picture of a bride dancing with her father at her wedding appear that much more infused with emotion.

There are other ways you can pair and group colors that go beyond their naturally designed complement partnerships.  These are not things that are meant to provide visual balance necessarily but instead suggest harmony because of how they have been frequently used enough within our culture/world or what they might mean symbolically as they are used representaionally.

The color combination of red, white and blue, is one that is easily associated with things of Americana since the American flag is red, white, and blue.  Just because they are used so symbolically in this way doesn’t mean that people will always think of the American flag when you seen them though.  This family portrait (taken for a holiday greeting) was taken in the winter time.   The snowy and icy environment drew in cool tones of light overall but the family chose to wear red, white and blue within their wardrobe combination.


As defined by culture, red, white, and blue do indeed go together but somehow this color doesn’t scream American flag.  Instead, the colors are used as a tool to suggest the notion in a subtle way that this is a portrait of the classic American family.  Another  popular color combination is black, white, and red. Why does this combination work so well?  The red stands out beautifully accompanied by either black or white individually or together since they provide such sharp contrast.  Put all of those colors together and you get something that has an almost polished and sharp feel to it.


Let’s consider some color palettes that are inspirations of personal style now.  Ever considered a palette that included warmth in the way of brown?  Brown, incidentally, is a color that is created by mixing all of the primary colors together.  The proper way to do it is to first make green with the blue and yellow and then to take the green and mix red into it little by little, voila – brown!  Something interesting about brown is that it became a very popular color for fashion designers to use right after the time when the tragedy of 9/11 happened in NYC.   Nearly every fashion design house utilized brown in their palettes because it’s a color that suggests dependability and reliability.  It’s the color of dirt but because of that it has a very grounded feel to it.  It can also suggest a feeling of wholesomeness and comfort as it’s the same color of things like chocolate, cookies, and hard wood flooring.  I like this combination of brown and gold/orange-yellow because it suggests warmth without it being overly firey and bright the way that red, orange, and yellow can be.


Another thing you can do with colors?  You can tweak the saturation of them so they are very bright, vibrant, and have an almost visceral quality.  Doing this to color, making it essentially louder, infuses just a little more energy into an image.  It works really well for subject matter that might be action-oriented like young children who are at the stage of always seeming like they are moving or an event where there is lots going on.  The below image was taken using tilt-shift stylings of the beginning of a 5K race.

IMG_3540 copy copy

If you don’t care for loud and energetic colors you can also desaturate them.  Doing this can inject a modern feel to your image.  There have been many high-fashion type images that utilize this and the desaturation lends a very distinctively sophisticated edge to the image itself.


That wraps up my soapbox on color theory.  Probably an understatement to say I could definitely go on and on about this topic as evidenced by the fact that I did and this is my second posting on it.   Just the same, I trust that I’ve showed you enough of the basics of color theory to prove that it is very important within the photographic medium.  You can always have great composition or beautiful leading lines within the frame of your image but color is a powerful tool that can make or break and image as well. I’ve showed you plenty with regard to the rules of color theory and how to apply them, now show me your favorite color combinations and post links in the comments section below.  Hit me with your best shot (of color)!

Andrea Ream Ellwood is a visual artist who splits her time among various mediums: 10+ years of experience in freelance photography, high school art education, visual design consulting for print and web, and free form soft sculpturing of fun hats and toys for family and friends. She lives and works in the Washington DC metro area with her husband and daughter. You can view some of her photographic work at or follow her on Twitter @dreampraycreate


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