Illuminating Engineering 1967 journal article by Fabier Birren and my observations of colour theory.

I stumbled across this journal in my attempt to find academic material away from the commercialism of colour theory.  Some very interesting quotes and thoughts were contained within this article from 45 years ago.  
“Today the lighting industry is aware that if there is a science of light for biology, then there is also a science of light for well-being” (Birren1969:398).
“Light is a sensitive and essential factor in controlling plant growth……….It affects the the glands of the body…….Yet only lately have differential effects for colour in light (i.e. red, yellow, green and blue) been given special attention” (Birren,1969:398).
He quotes Wurtman “one can count on a single hand the amount of papers which have attempted to examine which proportions of the photic spectrum are biologically active”.
Birren speaks about how colour and light are important for animals breeding in zoos and the success of captive animals when enclosures were redesigned. Also of the elderly who by choice, isolate themselves in nursing homes.  They must have colour stimulation to avoid psychological illness (Birren,1969:399).
…Of colour symbolism itself, he suggests, “that one can only speak of tendencies to symbolism as it is based on many things and, in the same way you can not tell a man he is hungry on production of food, you can’t tell a person a colour  means something to them if it doesn’t”  (Birren,1969:399).
So, based on this reading that is heavily cited, I looked at an up to date colour theory website of colour meanings.  It seems that colour can mean many different things to many different people.  All colours can be positive and negative it seems (
I had an interesting conversation with my husband and discovered that just between us there is a vast difference in perception of colour.  My perceptions are emotional and his are based on entirely different set of criteria.
                         Me                                                              Mr B
Yellow:    Happy, bright, lightness, invigorating.                Cowardice
Purple:      Regal, mysterious, sumptuous.                    Rage
White:     Spiritual, calm.                                                    Fear
Red:       Danger, evil, military                                            Danger
Black:     Evil, death                                                           Black
Green:    Stability                                                               Envy
Blue:      Calm, reassurance, stability                                Royalty, uplifting.
Brown:       …………..We agreed on this one!…………
However, we realise that our perceptions change within context.  A red Sari symbolises union and marriage. Yellow changes to danger and alertness when walking past an electric sub station.
So I have come to the conclusion that if we are aiming to use colour symbolism heavily in our photography, we have to be aware that it will still be wide open to interpretation by the viewer depending on context, culture and nurture.
 A comprehensive list is found on this link.

Wright, A. (2008). Colour Psychology. Available: Last accessed 20/01/2014.


Birren, F. (1969). The Psychological Implication of Colour and Illumination. Illuminating Engineering. unknown (Unknown), 398.

avialable at: . Last accessed 19/01/ 2014

Assignment 3 Preparation

As I prepare to submit my assignment I am looking back at photography and suggested artwork to example Itten’s colour theories. I have consulted over the last few weeks to assess my interpretation of colour theory within landscape photography.  I will add to this list prior to submission.

Steve McCurry’s ‘A Budhist Monk near the Leper King Terrace’.

An example of accent colour. The overall image is of de-saturated yellow sand with hints on stronger yellows in leaves.  The orange of the robes is so vibrant that the eye is immediately taken to the Monk.

 Ardinois,B (2012). Magnum. 4th ed. London: Thames&Hudson. 360.


Eli Reed’s ‘A Lone Contruction Worker’ (9/11. World Trade Centre)

Example of heavily shadowed landscape with yellow light providing a punch for accent colour.

 ardinois,B (2012). Magnum. 4th ed. London: Thames&Hudson.435.


Joe Cornish’s ‘Off Shore wind turbine has a similar effect of yellow light in a grey seascape providing accent colour.’

 Cornish, J. (unknown). Off Shore Wind Turbine. Available: Last accessed 14/01/2014

 Joe Cornish, Swaledale.

 In this image de-saturated reds and green in landscape with no sky. House present as single point.

 Cornish, J. (unknown). Swaledale. Available: Last accessed 14/01/2014

 Joe Cornish’s ‘Sky and Sea’

Sunset or oranges, yellow and violet reflected in sea. Blue as backdrop colour.

Cornish, J. (unknown). Sky and Sea – Whitby. Available: Last accessed 14/01/2014

 Joe Cornish’s. ‘Upper Swaledale’.

 Light hitting landscape revealing  accent colour.

 Cornish, J. (unknown). Upper Swaledale. Available: Last accessed 14/01/2014.

 Ernst Haas’s. ‘Nevada Sky’.

 Sunset in ideal yellow/ violet ratio’s

Ernst Hass. (1960). Nevada Sky. Available: Last accessed 14/01/2014.

Ernst Hass’s ‘Tobago Wave’
Luminous and saturated blues and greens in contrast with whites in clouds. Last accessed 14/01/2014/01/2014.
Ernst Hass’s ‘Impala grazing’

Example of a warm image where cold colours are present. Last accessed 14/01/2014

The below paintings are in my ‘hard’ scrapbook.

The Rolin Madonna (La Vierge au Chancellor Rolin), c.1435, Jan Van Eyck, oil on panel, Louvre, Paris. Bridgeman Education.

Monte Saint-Victoria, c.1902, H. Matisse, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA. Bridgeman Education.

Café Terrace, Place du Forum, Arles, 1888,Vincent Van Gogh, Rejikmuseum, Oill, Netherlands, Bridgeman Education.

Apocalypse de St Server, 11thc, (unknown), oil, Blibleoteque Nationale, Paris. Getty Images.

Landscape at Les Volettes, 1910, Pierre Renoir, Oil of Canvas, Musee Renoir, Cagnes-sur-mer, France. Bridgeman Education.

Tulip Field in Holland, (unknown), Claude Monet, oil on canvas, Musee Mamottan Monet, Paris. Bridgeman Education.

Sunset, Finchingfield, June, 1905, Lucern Pissaro, Private Collection. Bridgeman Education.

Man in Golden Hat, 1650, Circle of Rembrandt, oil on canvas, Private Collection Fribourg. Available at

Still-Life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose, 1633, Zurbaran, Norton Museum. Available atán_-_Still-life_with_Lemons,_Oranges_and_Rose_-_WGA26062.jpg Last accessed 17/01/2014

Guitar and Clarinet on Mantelpiece, 1915, Pablo Picasso, Oil, Paper and Sand, Gallery 900. Available at: last accessed 17/01/2014

Apocalypse de St Server, c.1100, (unknown), Oil, Blibleoteque Nationale, Paris. Available at Last accessed 17/04/2014

The Morning After The Deluge,1843, William Turner, oil on canvas, Tate, England. Available at:’s_Theory)_–_The_Morning_after_the_Deluge_–_Moses_Writing_the_Book_of_Genesis . Last accessed 17/01/2014

Colour Theorist Notes – Johannes Itten.

Johannes Itten was a Swiss impressionist painter who lived and worked during the last century.  He was a central figure in the Bauhauss School of Art.  From 1919 – 1922 he developed a preliminary course that aimed to teach the basics of material characteristics, composition and colour. These teachings are still central to art study today and his book ‘The Art of Colour’ contains his development of the 12 segment colour wheel (Unknown:2010).

Johannes Itten’s book ‘The Art of Colour’ is available in a precise book format that I have been able to borrow, entitled ‘Itten, Elements of Colour’.

Itten’s teachings were extensive and the history is as interesting as the teachings themselves but the main points are:

The twelve-point colour wheel made up from primary, seconday and tertiary colours (Birren 1994:30).


The seven colour contrasts that are listed below.

Contrast of hue:

This is the simplest of contrasts. Demonstrated by the intense luminosity and it is easy to distinguish. Three colour combinations are required.

Yellow/ red / blue comination is the extreme and most intense example.
Seconday and tertiary colours are less distinct. The colours should be undiluted.

When the colours are separated by black or white the individual nature of the colours are more apparent.

Using one hue as the main colour and other contrasting hues as accents can bring interesting results.

Light-dark contrast:

Black and White are the extremes of contrast with infinite shades between the two.

Neutral gray is ‘flat’ with no interest. However other colours introduced easily transform the effect to a complementary state, even on a minute scale. Gray has a reducing effect on neighbouring colours and proportions matter.

There are many issues to contend with in considering an oil painting but for photographers we often can’t be as precise about the finer elements of effect of finer light/ dark colour composition. One principal is that a painting might have up to 4 groupings of principal tones that must work well together. Using these tones effectively can increase or decrease the depth of an image (Birren 1996: 37 – 44 ).

Cold – warm contrast:

Experiments have shown that the colour a room is painted can influence the perceived temperature in a room (Birren,1994:45).

The right side of the colour circle can be considered ‘warm’ and the left side considered ‘cold’. But this can be misleading (Bitten,1994:45) because each hue has a cold and warm spectrum (Bitten,1994:46).

In landscapes cold can imply distance and warm/cold can imply closeness (Bitten,1994:46).

Monet worked outdoors and made observations of colour and the effects of the time of day and light temperature. He concluded that paying attention to cold/ warm hues was more important then light/ dark. His, Pisarro’s and Renoir’s paintings used these observations of warm/ cold in their paintings (Birren,1994:47).

Complementary contrast:

Complementary colours are to be found situated opposite each other on the colour wheel. When used in the ratios suggested, they make for a static image.

yellow/ violet
blue/ orange
red/ green

Characteristics differ between each pair. Yellow/ violet provide the strongest light dark contrast. Red – orange/ blue – green complementary pair give the strongest warm/ cold contrast. Red and green are of equal brilliance (Birren,1994:49).

Simultaneous contrast:

This basically means that for any colour viewed the eye naturally seeks out the complimentary colour and can create it in surrounding greys. So even if the actual complimentary isn’t physically present it is created by colour cones in the eye. (Birren,1994:52) Itten presents colour squares to demonstrate this and places a smaller grey square in each colour. The grey appears to take on the hue of the complementary colour. (Bitten,1994:53)

Contrast of Saturation:

Saturation is the purity of colour. Each colour mixed with white or black dilutes the purity and has a different effect on each colour (Birren,1994:58).

Contrast of Extension:

This involves Goethe colour values. This is a rule of thumb for proportions of colour of the same intensity.
Goethe gave these values to colour:

Yellow 9 (brightest)
Orange 8
Red 6
Violet 3
Blue 4
Green 6

The complementary ratios from this give orange and blue 2:1, violet and yellow 3:1, red and green 1:1 (Birren,1994:59).

Itten explains also that there is visual impression, emotional expression and symbolic construction. This can vary between cultures as colour can symbolize different emotions in different countries (Birren,1994:12).

Unknown.(2010).JohannesItten.Available: Last accessed 08/01/2014.

Birren, F (1994). Itten The Elements of Colour. 5th ed. London: Chapman and Hall. 1-95.

Colour Theorist Notes – Goethe

I stumbled across a set of youtube lectures by ‘PehrSall’ (Schaeffer Art) having first perused Goethe’s colour theory book and wondered where on Earth to start a précis of it.  This 4 part lecture has helped considerably in providing paraphrased notes below.

Lecture 1.

Goethe’s journey into colour theory began with a trip to Italy where he asked artists questions relating to colour. He didn’t have satisfactory answers so undertook his own studies.

He started by looking at Newton’s prism and discovered that colour only seemed to appear at edges.  He found two boundary prismatic spectrums when rotating a prism over black and white checkered boards.  In one direction yellow hues appeared and in the other blue hues appeared. When the two spectrums merged, the other complementary colours of spectrum resulted. He found Newton’s spectrum and also an inverted spectrum.  He concluded that Netwon had only found half the story and that colour was based on both lightness and darkness and all colours known could be found in both spectrums.  His findings were ridiculed as a simple attack on Newtonian concepts.

PherSall. (Unknown). schaeffer art: Goethe’s theory of colour. Available: Last accessed 07/01/2014/01/2014.

Lecture 2.

Goethe experimented with the eye’s reaction to light and colour. Staring at a window frame for a few seconds leaves an after image on the eye that can then be seen as a ‘negative’ effect when eyes move to a plain surface.  Staring at a 3d cube of red, green and blue provides a visual after effect of a cube but with yellow replacing blue, pink replacing green and aqua replacing red.  Notably, this produced the same results as the experiment using a prism with a black and white board. 

Two experiments demonstrate the effect of shadow. The first showing a piece of paper with a crease throws two shadows, one being yellow in hue and the other being blue in hue.

Ref: PherSall. (Unknown). schaeffer art: Goethe’s theory of colour. Available: Last accessed 07/01/2014/.

 Lecture 3.

Goethe looked at phenomenon of sky. i.e. sunset and rainbows.  Also he looked at chemical colour such as you would find in insects, stones, flowers etc.  In one experiment he filled a white cup with yellow liquor and noticed that the deeper the water the stronger the yellow appeared until it became orange.

Ref:  PherSall. (Unknown). Schaeffer art: Goethe’s theory of colour. Available: Last accessed 07/01/2014.

Lecture 4.

Goethe considered too the psychological effect of colour.

Yellow : Gives a warm and pleasant impression.

Blue: Sense of darkness, melancholy and gloomy.

Purple: Colour of awe ‘for the day of judgement’.

Ref: PherSall. (unknown). Schaeffer art: Goethe’s theory of colour. Available: Last accessed 07/01/2014.

Colour theorist notes – Newton.

Sir Issac Newton.

 I took myself to Britannica for an introduction into colour theorists.  My notes here are paraphrased from there and referenced below.

 Aristotle hypothesized that colour was arrived at from a mix of black and white and this was the general understanding until Sir Issac Newton arrived in 1666 having discovered the colour spectrum by splitting light wavelengths through a prism. The colours became ‘white light’ again when merged back together.

 Newton’s colour wheel was arrived at through 7 colours found when splitting the light. These colours are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

 Newton was more concerned with the science of light and colour then the use of colour itself. 

 He made other observations on the effect of mixing light on a white surface and how the eye picks the mix up as one colour, unlike the ear that picks up the sound of two notes simultaneously.

 colour 2014. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 07 January, 2014, from

 Needless to say there are many diagrams and scientific writing that I could absorb myself in.  For now though I am satisfied that I am aware of some of the concepts even if I don’t entirely appreciate the magnitude of Newtons research. I am anticipating revisiting this subject when studying the next module of ‘Light’


Mixing pigment and light.


 The colour wheel is introduced prior to the exercise on controlling brightness of a colour through exposure. 

 I visited the art section of our small local library and found this lovely little book,Oil – Painting Workshop (Boshoff,A),with a very clear and simple explanation of basic colour theory. Colour wheels are primary school basics.  However, it has been a long time since school for me!

 To paraphrase.

 “The colour wheel is an easy way to demonstrate how three primary colours (Red, Yellow and Blue) can be mixed to make three secondary colours (Orange, Violet and Green).  Adding one more primary colour to the secondary colour provides  another 6 tertiary colours that form a wheel of twelve colours.” (Boshoff,2006:20)


From this, as the author goes on to say, the primary colours provide us with the strongest contrast. Complementary colours are the contrasting colours on the opposite side of the wheel that make each other look brighter when placed side by side.

 I can see from the colour wheel that two primary colours mixed make a colour that contrasts with the original two primary colours.



 Red and Yellow = Orange.

 Red and Blue  = Violet.

 Blue and Yellow = Green.


 The above has given me a gentle start in to looking at colour combinations.  Of course a landscape artists can adapt colours to enhance a landscape through a palette of colours that they choose to mix. The interpretations of a scene will differ enormously from one artist to the next.  For example Van Gough and Turner have two completely different styles and had they stood in front of the same scene at the same time then I have no doubt the end results would be so different that you would never guess they had been viewing the same scene. However, I am beginning to realise that their choices of hues and tones are no accident and this is going to be a huge subject that I hadn’t anticipated.  There have been many colour theories that I could spend a whole year considering and contemplating as a stand-alone subject matter and probably will. Academics such as Newton, Goethe and Itten spent a lifetime considering the subject.  For now I aim to grasp the basic concepts and refer back and develop my understanding as the module goes on.

For me the written word is second to learning from the practical outcomes of great artists and photographers.  However, their outcomes were no accident and I will go on to look at Johannes Itten’s teachings.

 The mixing of primary colours are not to be muddled with mixing of light Red, Green and Blue that are the wavelength channels that photographers are more concerned with when light painting. Red, Green and Blue light channels mixed together produces white light. The various ratios of the channels produce a ‘light temperature’ and we use Kelvin Scale to measure it(Hunter,F:2012).

The viewer of an image might be highly unaware of this and the outcome as to whether an image is pleasing or not will be based on the same resulting mixes of colours as an oil painting.  I am aware that the next module is ‘light’ and will leave the technical research into this for now. Of course, as I found in the exercise: Primary and Secondary Colours, by adjusting exposure, we can change the ‘effect’ or ‘intensity’ of a colour.…colours-violet//p>


 Boshoff, A (2006). Oil – Painting Workshop. London: Dorling Kindersley. 20 – 21 

Hunter,F, Steven, B, Fuqua, P (2012). Light, Science and Magic. 4th ed. Oxford: Focal Press. 18 – 19.

Colour theory according to Ted Forbes

Forbes, T. (2013). Episode 138: Color Theory in Photography. Available: Last accessed 4th December 2013.

 This 20min video tutorial was a fantastic starting block into looking at colour and how it can be used effectively in composition.  One wonderful tool spoken about is Adobe Kuler.  This is an interactive colour wheel that assists with colour palettes. It provides hues and saturations and an RGB value bar.

Ted Forbes goes on to talk about a number of noted photographers that I will research further.,0.7,0.1344817502446264,0.7350598106945914,1,0.4498401064939389,0.6591050803227545,1,0.292116786063752,0.6157358925518417,0.06448175024462637,0.7,0.9061409373801115,0.292116786063752,1&swatchOrder=0,1,2,3,4