Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is known for being one of the originators of the Fauvist style where contemporary impressionist rendition gave way to bold color and hard lines. His use of complementary colors and shape provided a twist on traditional French painting. While Fauvism was seen by some to be untrained and wild by comparison to contemporary style at the turn of the century, the use of vibrant, expressive colors enabled Matisse to direct the viewers eye through his canvas leading his viewer’s attention where he wanted it.
I’d like to play with the idea of utilizing complementary color using photography as our medium.
Henri Matisse was born on the final day of 1869, and it wasn’t until the next century that his brilliance was truly recognized. Widely (some might say universally) considered to be one of France’s most influential painters of the 20th century, his prolific use of color garnered intense interest in the use of color for the creation of shape and form. The use of vivid color was not invented by Matisse, but he certainly used it to make a mark and influenced many painters and artists after him. From this pivotal point in history (as far as visual art is concerned anyway), it opened up and gave way to new ideas while challenging traditional practice. The world’s perception of what made a master painter would be retrained on the genius of painters like Matisse.
We jump to the present and our medium in question. Can we play with the concepts of Fauvist masters to translate the ideas to photography? No pressure or anything, but let’s now look at the foundation of color, and its implementation in visual art regardless of the medium, as a quick review. From a young age, we become familiar with the concept of primary colors. Red, blue and yellow. We know that when we mix two of these colors in equal parts, it produces colors we know as secondary colors. Secondary colors are violet, orange and green. What results from the combination of primary and secondary colors are called tertiary colors.
The concept of complementary colors is such that any given color complements its opposite on this color wheel. For example, red and green are complementary, orange and blue, yellow and violet, etc. Using these complementary colors together in compositions, be it in photos, paintings or clothing, can provide a pleasing, or (at least) complementary color combination. Of course personal taste comes into play as I’m sure not all of us find these color combinations universally pleasing, but you get the point. When used together, it can draw the eye to the contrast involved between the complementary relationship these different colors have.
In the painting above, Matisse uses areas of greens and blues to complement and help draw out areas of reds and oranges directing our eyes to those points helping depict depth, dimension and form. The neck, the cheek, the hat and hair. Using these complementary transitions to define figure and line, drawing our eyes through the image and emboldening his subject against her colorful, defocused background. While at first glance this painting can seem busy and chaotic, it has its own level of control utilizing the relationship between these complementary colors. I first focused on the eyes as a point of easy reference and allowed myself to visually wander through it being led largely by these areas of complementary contrast as it were.
Going further into it, each color has a variety of luminance variations. Those of us familiar with using a mid-tone or 18% gray in a photographic sense might be familiar. Speaking in terms of the visible spectrum of light, white is the combination of all color while black is the absence of color. Contrarily, when combining pigmented color, let’s say paints for the sake of argument and reference, black is the combination of all color and white is the absence of a colored pigment. That said, when pure white paint is added to any color it can create a different value or shade. (Have you ever been to a paint store and noticed the seemingly endless types of “white” paint?) Here is another rendition of the color wheel showing variations on primaries, secondaries and tertiary colors with the addition of different increments of white:
Many photographs also employ the use of complementary colors to aid in composition or subject matter. A bright orange and red sunset fading into deep indigo sky tones can add drama to composition. Concepts like color blocking in fashion photography commonly use a complementary combination to help the subject pop. Using this complementary contrast is a good way to keep your subject from receding into the background elements, helping you sculpt the image and train the viewer’s eye on what you choose to draw focus to.
Here is an example where I wanted to draw focus to the model, my lovely and very talented friend Flora, by allowing the deep green background to settle in behind her and contrast that by a complementary pop of color, being her bright red dress in this case. Complementary color contrast can add dimensionality to a two dimensional photograph. A rule of thumb is that warmer colors will pull forward while cooler colors will recede.
Positioning, lighting and composition all play parts, especially in photographic output. Using color is one of many tools to help key in on the subject you would like to draw attention to or away from while complementing the other elements of your composition. While warmer colors come forward visually and cooler colors recede, an impure color can have a muting effect on a pure color. Pure color is color that is in a state of maximum saturation meaning, in the case of primaries, an unaltered state. Or for secondary and tertiary colors, a pure combination of the combining two colors. When a white, gray or black pigmented variation is added, an otherwise “pure color” becomes impure. Impure colors can potentially mute a pure color when used together in a composition. In the example above, I tried to keep the greens behind Flora as vibrant and “pure” as I could by firing a light onto the shrub behind her. Had I not, and used the key light to entirely light the scene, the greens would have been darker and potentially taken away some of the ‘pop’ that the red shows up with.
Try shooting a primary color on a gray background, then that same color on a complementary colored background. On the gray, it can seem more muted. When shot on a complementary colored background, the warmer complementary color should pull forward while providing a more vivid composition drawing more attention to that color. Here’s a quick example where I’ve shot some yellow tulips in front of a violet hued background, and then in post, changing it to a gray background.
I shot a series of color cards on gray, and figured this was a more realistic example and not quite as boring to look at. While not entirely compelling subject matter, it is a simple still life image that helps show the difference when a complementary color is used to create color contrast and pop.
When not in control of the color, look to naturally occurring color contrast. Looking through my past travel pics, I saw the thumbnail of this picture and it seemed to exhibit a coincidental capture where the warm orange of the castle’s illumination was caught at the right time with the twilight blue in the sky.
Bright, vibrant color contrast doesn’t make sense for all photographic application, but when used intentionally it can provide visual interest and if used well, can help direct your viewer’s eye through your image to your desired subject. I hope this has helped refresh our understanding of complementary color contrast. I’d not spent much time thinking about primary colors and their complementary contrasting compatriots since the last time I finger painted in kindergarten, so it has been fun for me to revisit color from a basic and fundamental place. Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
*Image denoted are © and property of the Estate of Henri Matisse and used here with intention by the author for personal study and educational purposes. No other use is permitted.
All photographs are © Tyson Robichaud and cannot be used, duplicated or referenced without permission. Please ask, I don’t bite.