Photo Essay

The theory of Color Theory

Shiny on white

Color Theory seems to be one of the more controversial - and, to me, one of the more disappointing - themes.

It is controversial not just because different people interpret it differently. That is normally a good thing as it encourages creativity. Rather, the main controversy stems from differing views over what is and is not a "color", in particular, whether black and white are, in fact, colors.

So far, my entry, Shiny on White, has had two comments about it not fitting the theme. Yet I also have comments about it fitting the theme "perfectly". That's how polarised the viewpoints are.

If I were to comment likewise, I would say that probably more than 95 percent of the images that I have viewed under this theme do not fit the criteria. This is where I find the submissions mostly disappointing.

The instructions seem simple enough. We are to submit our best photo that happens to be "mostly one vivid color". Yet each of these four words - mostly one vivid color - has been either completely ignored, or interpreted way too broadly, by many of the people who submitted.

Allow me to give my take on how each of these four words should be interpreted:

MOSTLY

To me, mostly means as close as possible to 100 percent. Perhaps most people - close to 100 percent - might agree with this.

But where is a suitable cut-off point? While it is neither practical nor meaningful to measure precisely, to me it has to be somewhere above 80 percent. Once you go down to about 70 percent or less, it becomes no longer "mostly". You will see very clearly two, or more, distinct colors. You no longer get the feeling that the image is mostly one color.

Rather than base on percentages, I think what really matters is the first impression. When you first view an image, do you immediately get the impression that it is of one color? If it takes you a while to see that, then I would say the image fails.

In this regard, I am also disappointed with some of the images highlighted under this theme. They do not give an immediate first impression of being "mostly one color".

But it gets much worse. Some images have the main subject (of one colour, more or less) occupying no more than 20 or 30 percent of its entire area. How can this be "mostly"?

ONE

One means one. Yes?

No! For the sake of flexibility and creativity in interpreting the theme, I would allow "one" to mean variations of "one". It can have all the many different shades of one color.

So a red image could range from light pink to deep, dark red. A green image could include bluish green, yellowish green and, of course, greenish green. And so on.

My image, Yabba Dabba Doo! might arguably fall into this category. The main image is pink, the background is grey but with a pink tint.

I would even take the two words - mostly one - together and allow lots of colors so long as the main part of the image is one color. For example, if 90 percent of an image is of one color, the remaining 10 percent can be as colorful as the rainbow. That's fine with me. I am not one who goes for the straight and narrow definition.

But for some people, even that is not enough. They have submitted images with red, blue, green, yellow... multiple colours occupying fairly large areas and spread all over.

VIVID

This is the tricky part. What exactly does 'vivid' mean?

I, for one, did not even notice this word initially, until someone pointed out that my image is not of one VIVID color. So I checked dictionary.com for the meaning of vivid. And I learned that it means "bright and intense".

Did that settle any dispute? Unfortunately, no. On my image, the white hand is very bright, no arguments about that. The rest of the image is fairly bright too. But are they "intense"? I, too, am not sure.

What about other colors? What if an image is pale blue, dull yellow, etc? Would these be considered "vivid"?

COLOR

Now we come to the most interesting part of this discussion - are black and white "colors"?

If we go by the technical / scientific definitions, color is determined by the measurements of hue, saturation and brightness.

Black has neither hue or brightness. Does it have saturation? Err... Look at it this way. Black is black. If it is less saturated, it become gray, no longer black. And it cannot become more saturated or "more black" either.

White has plenty of brightness, but it also lacks hue and saturation. So where does this lead us?

Heck the science and the technicalities. If we base on common word usage, then black and white - like the black box of an aircraft, or egg white - certainly are colors.

One the subject of black and white, one cannot escape the fact that Color Theory has attracted a good number of black and white images. No. No. No. Unless these images are mostly black or white, for example snow scenes, I would throw the rest out as well.

DARKNESS / BRIGHTNESS

That said, I feel we ought to differentiate between black and dark, and also between white and bright.

When we talk of black and white being colors, we refer to objects that appear that way - not to things that we cannot see either because it is too dark, or too bright.

If an image has a dark background, for example, do we know for sure that the background is black? It could well be any color, even white - just that we cannot see because there is no light falling on it. It's the same if the background - or any object, for that matter - is overly bright. We don't know what the true color is.

There are also big differences between black versus dark images and white versus bright images.

A black image might show, for example, the chassis of computers, or black hair, or motorcar tires. Whatever it is, it shows something. A dark image, on the other hand, shows nothing. And that is a huge difference.

Likewise a white image might show a bridal dress, a white refrigerator, or snow. Again, it shows something as opposed to an overly bright image that shows nothing.

Apply this to Color Theory, I would disqualify all images with mostly dark or bright backgrounds.These are not colors. For example, I would not submit my image, Opening Pose, to this theme although more than 90 percent of the image appears "black". Because it is dark, not black.

SUBJECT / BACKGROUND

This brings us to the topic of subject versus background.

If you have a flower, an apple, a person, whatever... against a large background that is mostly of one vivid color, what catches the eye first? The subject? Or the single-color background?

Chances are, it will be the subject, no matter how small an area it occupies. Again, first impressions count. And again, I would say such images don't fit.

My image, 3+2, is one example. Most of the image is dark / black. But that is NOT what catches your eye. Your eyes are first drawn to the lanterns and street lamps.

SOURCE OF STRENGTH

Finally, we ought to consider the source of the strength of the image. Where does it come from?

In this challenge, JPG asks for images that "happen to be" mostly one vivid color. I would be a bit stricter and call for images that "draw their strengths" from it being mostly one vidid color.

My image, Red Arcobats, illustrates this point. For a while, I has submitted it to the theme. But I felt the strength of the image comes primarily from the "action" of the acrobats, particularly from the fact that one of them is tumbling in mid-air.

The fact that the image is mostly red is, in this case, incidental. It happens to be that way. So it meets JPG's criteria. But to me, it is not good enough. I would want an image that is strong because it is mostly one vidid color, not one that just happens to be.

Most of the images here - except for those mentioned as exceptions - draw their strength from being mostly one vivid color. They don't just happen to be that way.

Oh well. Perhaps I am being too uptight about all this? But hey, that's my photographic style!

No doubt you will have your own views and theories. Would be good if you can add to this discussion.

VOTE: Do you like this story?

Tell a friend about this story!

Tell a friend about this story!

  1. or
Preview

Hi there!

thought you might like this story!

http://jpgmag.com/stories/12200

Thanks,
—The JPG team

35 responses

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    great article...Mostly: means mainly, meaning more than not = anything over half.

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    vivid color means strong or high in chroma = hue & saturation

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    which brings us to the most controversial COLOR which is NOT black and/or white.

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (29 Jun 2009):

    errr... what is this most controversial color? Gray?

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    I think there are a huge number of self professed artists who try very hard to interpret more into words than there is in order to allow their precious image to be included...that they are different and/or special and that they will be noticed for being so whether right or wrong....I do not believe in reading between the lines and/or interpretation of something unless that is specifically asked....life and rules are not a POEM and I really do not like it when so MUCH OF THIS type of stuff becomes a book, novel, topic of discussion, endless wheel spinning and even flared tempers..... Read the words and go by them....STOP making mountains out of mole hillls...this is a photography place with themes...some have loose guidelines, some do not....if more people would put their time, attention and energy into taking impactful images instead of challenging things with their emotionally charged self centered egos...well...it would mean we would have better images to look at instead of being sidetracked debating the definition of a word or two...

  • dp *

    dp * said (29 Jun 2009):

    18%....?

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    if anyone challenges this theme's guidelines, then define what VIVID white means...

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    there are six colors, gray is not one of them, or a combination of any of them...so gray is white and black (both not colors, but absence of them) mixed....duh???

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    what do you mean 18 per cent?

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (29 Jun 2009):

    I think David is just having some fun with his 18% comment? LOL!

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    three primary colors, three secondary....18% is ia gray card...nothing to do with color, actually it's absence of color makes it an ideal metering source...

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    I'm flattered richard..usually it's simon k. whirling me into defending guideline specifics...

  • dp *

    dp * said (29 Jun 2009):

    A neutral tone. Which is the key to vividness. The tone of skin or cement on an overcast day. Total white containing 18% black. So the further away from that percentage the more or less vivid or Maybe I missed something in art class.
    I agree compelling content composed well is of utmost importance. dp

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    neutral may equal a key to vividness, but it in itself is not vivid...so gray does not equal vivid...much less a color at all....18% saturation of a color would be less vivid than 100%... don't try and throw math at me ... ;o).

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    it's black and white....gray is not a color....

  • dp *

    dp * gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    :-) Ohkee Doke.

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (29 Jun 2009):

    But then, compelling content composed well can go elsewhere, especially when they don't happen to be "mostly one vivid color".

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    or especially when they have no color at all... ;o)

  • dp *

    dp * said (29 Jun 2009):

    at some point the artist needs to decide whether to stay in the so called "box" or bust out and express themselves. Make a moving image and be happy with the choice and damn the critics and the vote. dp

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (29 Jun 2009):

    Yes, damn the critics. I think it was the composer Sibelius who observed that nobody has ever erected a statue in honor of a critic ;-)

  • Simon Kossoff

    Simon Kossoff (Deleted) said (29 Jun 2009):

    There is no pure and true blacks or whites in nature so if you expose correctly and shoot in colour there should be no problem.. they are 'guidelines' remember, NOT 'rules'.. Any challenge, esp where art is concerned is nothing but a good thing and perception is bigger than all of us can imagine.

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (29 Jun 2009):

    errr... what if I shoot some unnatural black or white objects? LOL!

  • dp *

    dp * said (29 Jun 2009):

    Love that list of colors @ wikipedia. How a bout Caput mortuum . Thanks for the link. dp

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    nice try richard but if you read your "list of colors" definition you will see it relates to COMPUTER colors...

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    and I agree that wikipedia is not a reliable source = try webster.

  • peggy gardner

    peggy gardner gave props (29 Jun 2009):

    simon - no light at all = pure black.

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (1 Jul 2009):

    Whoa! That's a threat!
    Agree this is NOT a technical magazine and we should not get technical about black, gray and white not being colors.
    It is almost like saying "zero" is not a number! Maybe technically it is not but it is surely an essential part of the number system.

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (1 Jul 2009):

    LOL now you drag lawyers into the picture. Be careful. They are costly. Probably more so than scientists!

  • Zerina Phillip

    Zerina Phillip gave props (19 Oct 2009):

    FANTASTIC.

  • Amberture

    Amberture gave props (16 Dec 2009):

    "Color is in the eye of beholder"..... What is color meant to color-blind, or specific-color blind?

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah said (17 Dec 2009):

    Hey Thanks Amberture, for dropping by and leaving your comments :-)

Want to leave a comment? Log in or sign up!