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The World Of Color

May 18, 2010
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Color is all around us. In nature, there are a million shades of green. In the colors that surround us in everyday life, colors are sometimes natural and sometimes contrived. Some food products are presented at market in their natural state, while others have had some “color enhancement”. Color can influence mood, and many theorize that (much researched) use of certain color schemes can also influence the masses to buy a product. Remember, the only suitable color for a Ferrari is red LOL. By trying to understand the nuances of color in its many guises, we can hone and improve our own aesthetic sense.  So complex, I’ll stay mostly away from the scientific, but instead offer a few tips and some direction so that you can view Color as valuable tool and not just as a haphazard adornment.

Color In Photography

On all of my cameras, I shoot Raw files. They’re like a digital negative. With a Raw File processor, like Adobe Camera Raw or Bibble, I can click what I know to be as white or neutral grey, and the software does the work of properly balancing the image for me. Granted, refinements do happen afterward, such as warming flesh tones or balancing green foliage with added red or magenta, but at least with one click white balance, I’ve got a good starting point instead of an ugly off color out of camera jpeg, where color casts can be almost impossible to remove by the novice digital image processor.

Even with all of the enhancements in digital cameras, the shot sometimes comes out “wrong” when perceived by your eye. There are several variables in play here. One of course is the electronics of the camera and how it interprets color wavelengths. When shooting from the hip jpegs,one camera may handle daylight blue skies with an underlying tone towards magenta) like my old Panasonic DMC-LX2), while another may interpret the blue with a slight cyan cast (like my even older Olympus C5050). But since both cameras shoot Raw files, I know that in post I can quickly correct anything I don’t like. In professional shooting, I will sometimes set a custom white balance in the camera, but  on leisure days out doing landscapes and such, I don’t want to be fiddling.

Back last year I was called up by a beginning wedding shooter who had a problem. In the pics of the bride taken outdoors in early morning, the bride, who was pretty fair, looked a ghastly bluish color. She looked like death. The strong blue wavelengths of early morning light put the color cast into his camera jpegs, and the problem was only exacerbated by the fact that many of the shots were done on grass and under a tree. The grass and tree in essence acted like a giant bluish/greenish bounce card. When we put them up on my big Apple monitor here, the brides dress looked nowhere near white. We corrected the selected shots (he shot all jpegs) using various combinations of Hue/Sat adjustment layers, grey point in curves, and masking in some proper color balance for flesh tones. After seeing the beauty of Raw Files, the young photog now shoots that way. He’s a good shot. Raw shooting will only help improve his work.

A reasonably good monitor (even without expensive color calibration software), shooting Raw files, and properly interpreting color will go a long way in helping you improve your photography. A note on the monitors – I have higher end stuff here. One is the 24″ Apple Cinema Display, which I swear reveals all sins. Another is one of the large Dell Ultrasharps. Monitor choice depends first on your budget and second on the type of work you’re doing. For doing fine art work, some research and investment is warranted. Don’t go with the first bargain that comes along.

Color In Digital Art

For Daz things, 3D scenics, crazy Photoshop composites, I have two practices for considering Color. One is using human figure shot comparisons, the other is closing the file and putting it away for a day. Back a few weeks ago I rooted through some files and pulled out a few of what I consider to be really good people portrait shots. With my Daz People, if I want to go towards a more photorealistic look, I place one of the portrait shots right next to the Daz character shot. This will help give me a base guideline of whether I’m going right, or very wrong. I look at ambient shadow, level of color saturation, general skin tones, etc. The photo portraits I selected as my baseline group act only as a guide. When viewing the photos and the Daz stuff side by side, it helps me develop the look I want. Is the image here real or a Daz Girl? You decide.

When developing commercial pieces, I get the base stuff down, adjust colors and lighting, and then walk away from it for awhile, at least a few hours. More often than not, overnight. When coming back to a piece with fresh eyes, you’ll see distinctively different things. Room light can also affect how your art looks. I have my computers and monitors in a somewhat darker room (eastern exposure with drapes I can draw), and use a couple of well placed lamps with daylight balanced fluorescents. This keeps my ambient lighting consistent, no matter what time of day I work.

The Color Wheel

Back in grade school art class, I was first introduced to the Color Wheel. This little piece of cardboard remains one of my favorite tools. A color wheel can help predict and plan color changes. This one here is about 10 years old, and has a great coffee stain on the flip side. I wonder if newer ones have RGB values? Anyway, they can be had cheap at just about any art store or even educational suppliers. This little one here remains on my desk all the time. I have a larger (and much cleaner!) one that I keep in my briefcase that I sometimes use in client consults. From the little color wheel, even something as elementary as getting the hang of complementary colors will help improve your own photography and artwork. It can help in something as seemingly simple as considering a model’s clothing pieces, to deciding what colors to make Cube A and Cone B in your 3D work.

My Own Five Color Rule

Have you ever heard of Kuler? Kuler is a very neat web tool from Adobe that can help you in developing color schemes. Particularly useful in developing web color combos, I also use it when I do vector drawings. In my opinion, the eye and brain will ideally interpret up to 5 main “impact” colors at a time. After that, anything else is viewed as extra baggage and the intended impact of your artwork can be lost. Let’s look at the image here. Yes, it’s a crop of Andy Warhol’s original Campbell’s Soup Cans. Four main colors, yet the piece is an icon. It is perhaps Warhol’s work that set the wheels in motion for more minimalist color to be accepted in modern culture and now mainstream.

Going with a maximum 5 color theme doesn’t mean you can’t have shades and variations, but simpler is usually better in getting your point across especially when doing vector artwork. My own 5 color theme does not outlaw additional color accents, even as many as 20. But in the underlying theme, I try and stick to the plan.

Color Resources

For books on color, I really suggest cruising the local library or bookstore. One commercial artist’s Pantone book has little real value to the causal or beginning digital artist. You have to really take a look at it in hand in my opinion. Web resources – again it’s personal choice. Many approach color theory from the scientific end, and that may be much more than you want or need. Don’t however, discount the value of some base learning about color spectrum. It’s fascinating stuff.

As we plod along here, I’ll note some websites of worth, but for now, get out and get that color wheel 😉

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