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The art of colour in impressionist photography

The art of colour in impressionist photography
15 Sep 2019

The art of colour in impressionist photography

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The majority of us hardly ever give colour a great deal of attention. We experience the world in colour and, usually, we take it for granted. For me, colour is one of the most important aspects of impressionist photography. Learning how to work with colour was always very important. Sometimes the world can be an explosion of hues, while at other times you have a more limited palette to explore. In either case, once you master the art of colour you will start to see an improvement in your impressionist photography.colour wheel

The main theories about colour are based on the colour wheel and relate to how the various colours on the wheel and the colours in your photographs work together. The colour wheel is the most useful tool for experimenting with colours as it shows how different colours interact with each other. Primary colours (red, yellow and blue) are spaced evenly around the circle, with secondary colours falling between them.

Of all the colour schemes, complementary is the most common. It occurs when two colours on directly opposing sides of the colour wheel are seen together. Red and green and orange and blue are perhaps the most common examples that you will encounter in nature.

Analogous colour is seen when all the colours come from the same part of the colour wheel; for example, a scene which is predominantly green or predominantly blue. This harmony is easy to achieve when you simplify a composition – zooming in will often reduce the range of colours that appear in the frame, or it can appear naturally when the environment is predominantly green.

colorful moss

Of course, while it’s great to know about these colour schemes, you can’t control the colours that appear in nature. You can go out and actively look for different colour combinations. One of my favourite techniques is to simplify a scene using analogous colours. The obvious starting point is to look for subjects with colours that are close to each other on the colour wheel, such as green foliage or the warm oranges of autumn trees, as this will instantly limit the hues in the image. You can also simplify colour through your choice of focal length or, more specifically, what you choose to include in your photo.

Another great way of introducing an analogous colour scheme is to shoot during the golden hour. Your images are naturally going to have an overall orange hue to them, due to the warm lighting, and this will simplify the image and create a certain mood.

Regardless of how you do it, take time to break scenes down and think about how you could restrict the colour palette through your choice of subject, lens or the time of day.

The season you photograph in will also have a huge impact on the colour of your images. I like to make notes about locations I’m photographing at different times of the year. I quite often go to locations only when they are most interesting. For example, there is a small park in my neighbourhood that has several blooming fruit trees in springtime; for the rest of the year, there is nothing interesting there.

tree in spring

If you are visiting a new area, research the locations you want to visit and find out when it is best to visit. You should also think about the time of day you go out and the weather.

It is all about learning and understanding the relationships between colours and how best to use them at any time of day or year.

Getting colour to work isn’t just about picking the right hues; light is also crucial. When you shoot under different types of light, the same colour might appear very different from one photo to the next, due to the changing lighting conditions.

On the camera, the white balance setting allows you to adjust the colours of your subject. If you set the white balance to Sunlight in the shade, you will get very cool, blue-tinged photos. However, if you leave the white balance set to Cloudy or Shadow in the sunshine, you will get much warmer, redder colours in your photos. If you set the colour saturation higher in the camera, the colours will become even warmer.

Once you understand the creative potential of White Balance, you can begin using it as a creative tool.

Whether you set it in-camera or in post-production, your white balance can have a fundamental effect on your images. Setting it towards the blue side of the colour temperature scale will leave you with a cooler, often moodier image, while a slightly orange bias will give a photograph a warm and welcoming feel.

dramatic sunset

Colour is an integral part of our experience of a picture, helping to determine the emotional content of the scene. You can use colour as a compositional tool by separating it from the subject matter and treating it as a form of communication in its own right. By using a particular colour scheme you can establish the entire mood of a shot, while you can combine contrasting and complementary colours to create feelings of dynamism or harmony, or imply relationships between subject elements.

The key thing to remember is that we all see colours differently and interpret them in our own way. We also have our own personal preferences as to which colours we like and this will ultimately affect our end results. There’s no right or wrong here. Just use your creativity to make impressionist images with impact.