What is good color?

When discussing color, different people have different reactions to the same pictures, be they photos or paintings. Where some enthuse „such great color!”, others won’t acknowledge color at all.

What determines color perception? Where is the borderline between objective psychophysiology and subjective preference? What distinguishes perception and attitude to the thing perceived? How does perception change with age and visual experience? How to develop good taste in color – and just what is good color, to begin with?

I’ll try to answer these and other questions in what follows. Let me preface it by saying that everything in this article is my personal opinion based on my studies and experiments with color as well as scientific research in the fields of psychophysiology, color theory and aesthetics, analysis of works of art, museum exhibits and films, conversations I’ve had with painters and photographers world-famous for color mastery and observations of how color perception changes in people as their creative powers develop. You have every right to disagree with me, but I hope you’ll find these thoughts useful or at least curious.

This article is a brief introduction to some important points. I go into greater detail and discuss many related topics in the Photography. Thinking in color course that I teach.

So what is good color? I think there are three parts to it. Good color is:

1. Rich color.

2. Harmonious color.

3. Expressive color.

Very often discussions of color focus on the second quality, but I consider richness of color of paramount importance, so let’s start with that.

Rich color

This means an abundance of gradients within color – they are called „valeurs” in painting. The Wikipedia’s definition will do fine:

Valeur (French meaning price, worth; from Latin „valere” to be worth) — in painting and drawing a shade of color. A system of valeurs in a work is an arrangement of lights and shades of some color.

Now colors can be altered in various ways, depending on the approach. For mixing colors and digital imagery the most convenient approach is the HSB system (Hue, Saturation, Brightness), which allows three kinds of alterations. Accordingly, there are three ways to make a color rich.

Richness through brightness

You alter only the brightness of a color, leaving saturation and hue as they were. If mixing real paints, you put in some whitening agent – or soot to make things darker.

Look at this picture by Rafal Milah for an example of richness through a brightness change. Observe how the color of the wall near the characters passes smoothly, gradually, in a broad range from rather light to nearly black. Since valeurs are distinct shades of color, it takes a whole lot of these gradients to produce a seamless transition. This picture has that broad range, so it’s rich color-wise, even though the untrained eye might detect just two colors here.

Richness through saturation

Changing saturation, you leave brightness and hue intact. With real paints the main technique is to admix to pure colors gray paint of the same brightness.

Look at the screenshot from the movie “Zabriskie Point” (1970). Notice how many shades of orange there are inside the explosion – from flash-bright to brown-gray. Although they blend, tens of thousands of shades have to be there to produce the impressive richness of this shot. It is they that make the picture interesting and worth looking at to the developed eye; a less developed one will only notice and enjoy the obvious juxtaposition of reddish orange with blue.

Richness through hue

Hue changes within certain limits, brightness and saturation remain. Painters do this by slowly pouring one paint into another.

Sergey Maximishin’s photo is my example here. Even though he doesn’t like to be called an artist and stresses his journalism, I believe that Sergey is a capital Artist with an amazing color sense.

Pay attention to the seamless transitions between turquoises and pinks behind the pipes here. We can see areas of distinct coloration, but they meld without a definite borderline. This effect takes a number of gradients so great that the eye cannot tell where one ends and the next begins.

Those are the three ways to alter color, but in real life and on actual paintings and photos colors rarely change along some one axis. Usually they endlessly vary along all, resulting in complex, rich and pleasing looking material.

(c) Alexander Zavarin, oil, canvas

To allow broad variations within a picture several ranges must be represented. Let’s consider color representation using the HSB mathematical model, or rather a version we’ll call the human body of colors. This three-dimensional figure illustrates colors the human eye can discern. The vertical axis through the center is neutral gradients from black below to white above. Off to the sides saturation increases. Considered from the top, the figure shows how colors form a 360-degree circle.

We can make a number of curious and very useful observations with the human body of colors, e.g.:

1) Every color reaches its maximum saturation at a different level of brightness.

2) Making a completely saturated color brighter or darker will cost saturation, and at the extreme turn it to black or white.

3) Boosting saturation works against color richness.

You can read my book “LIFELIKE: A Book on Color in Digital Photography” for a more in-depth discussion. Here I would only direct your attention to point 3. Surprising but true – the more saturated a photo is, the less nuanced and subtle its color.

To better distinguish varieties of perceived color, I talk about „colorful” vs. „gaudy.” A colorful pictures has lots of gradients, a gaudy picture has few. Increasing saturation eliminates subtle shades, thefore saturated pictures have few colors. And vice versa: the more colorful an image, i.e. the greater the number of colors in it, the less saturated it’s going to be – inevitably. 

Here is an example from the book. I don’t really care for this picture on other grounds, but it illustrates the point nicely. I’m showing it in two versions, the only difference is saturation.

Look especially at the shades of red. On the picture above, the more saturated one, the entire door is soaked in almost the same color. On the picture below you see shades and so better color detail. To „create” this detail original colors, too pure and bland, had to be soiled with a good splash of gray, which brought out gradients. This is painters’ „dirt is gold” rule in action. 

This effect of saturation is an objective property of the human eye, brain and perception. It applies like the laws of physics, whether we like it or not. But after the objective image has been perceived, the viewer’s own „perspective” on what he sees comes into effect, and that’s something that depends on personal history of visual experience.

Color perception matures

Although I’ve already covered this topic in Color solfege, I’ll recapitulate some of that piece’s main ideas, somewhat rephrased and illustrated.

A newborn can see almost nothing except vague shapes. In 2-3 months the child begins to focus his eyes on nearby objects, discern mother’s face in the visual feed, and as he grows older, his eye becomes better and better at noticing detail.

You might have noticed that kids’ toys are usually very bright (saturated, actually), with just a few basic colors used. That’s because they can’t appreciate color subtleties. Physiologically they are capable of distinguishing a number of tones, but in real life 15-20 colors are quite enough for them. A child’s system of values is dominated by easy conventions such as „pink for girls, blue for boys.” Subtle shades leave a child indifferent, only oversaturated colors produce a response.

As they grow, children begin to require more colors. Teenagers want to stand apart from the crowd, assert their individuality, and one way to do that is color preference. Young men and women’s clothes begin to feature more color nuances and elements. The colors themselves get more restrained, muted and elegant.

Overall number of colors increases, saturation bleeds out of them. Few adults will wear a vivid outfit outdoors, and usually it’s no sign of good taste but rather an intention to shock. Andy Warhol’s work shocked just so.

By the time a person is 20 and enters adulthood, he’s finished nature’s 101 course on visual sophistication. Any further development, if any, will require from personal creative effort.

I’ve come across these data: an average Russian high school student distinguishes 150-200 colors. A Japanese student sees 300-400. The reason is different education systems and social values, including family and ethnic values – Japanese schools teach many more aesthetics-related disciplines, down to ikebana and painting.

How many colors they see in this context means how many they use in their day-to-day lives, i.e. in making choices. Physiological capacity for color differentiation may be more or less the same, but their culture conditions Japanese people to be much more discerning and demanding in matters of color. Where a Russian is happy enough to say “whichever” over even a small selection, a Japanese person may insist on a shade between very close options.

Appreciation is first and foremost a matter of distinguishing nuances. Take dry wine. At first taste all most people can sense is something sour on the tongue. It takes experience to begin to realize nuances and enjoy their interplay.

Just the same way someone who lacks visual experience can’t appreciate muted colors. With the palate an inability to discern nuances is a sign of crude taste receptors, or more likely an unschooled nervous system and brain behind them. With the palette it’s the cones on the retina and the brain again. A crude system only understands strong stimuli – to a person who’s scalded his tongue with some hot drink everything will be tasteless for a while. The same way an eye that has only ever been exposed to saturated colors is both overwhelmed and undeveloped. It can’t appreciate subtler shades. With experience it will learn to see these variations and develop an aversion to excesses. Acidic, screaming colors will begin to jar.

The third level of perception is personal opinion and attitude towards colors. A person may be able to see color nuances and understand why others find them attractive but remain unimpressed. Polite excuses to be made in this case run along the lines of „I don’t like it,” „It doesn’t do anything for me” and so on. But discussion of preferences rarely attains this level, because most people can’t distinguish shades and tones that require a developed eye. To an ordinary person an admirer of pictures with rich but muted colors is a snob pretending to see what isn’t there. But the truth is, some people can see what others don’t. 

An obvious question follows: how to learn to see? How to develop taste? The answer is obvious enough: keep sampling color and teaching your cones. Go to museums, study paintings, albums and art books. Look closely at life and gather visual experience.

Harmonious color

The second key property of good color is that it’s harmonious. Harmony is pretty easy to understand. But there are lots of misconceptions and silly theories, mostly revolving around Itten’s color circle and how some colors on it especially well or badly harmonize with some others. In books and online you’ll find many many illustrations made up of geometries against Itten’s unfortunate invention – unfortunate because a couple of loose definitions have led astray whole generations of „scholars of color”… But I’ve written enough about the complementary colors fallacy in „The myth of color complementation”, so I’ll direct you there. Now let us talk about what color harmony is, if not a function of the circle.

To do that we’ll consider a palette of pure (saturated) colors – 12 will suffice. The analysis is valid for any palette size, though.

Looking at this palette, a few things come to mind:

1) It doesn’t look harmonious as a whole. The colors are too pure to have anything in common. They are screaming vivid, a.k.a. acidic.

2) Nonetheless, any two colors considered as a pair look a lot more harmonious, even though saturation remains. And it doesn’t matter how far or close to each other they are on the color circle and what their relationship is. It turns out that harmony is not about position of colors on the circle but their quantity. The fewer there are, the higher degree of saturation they can retain without harmony being threatened. And vice versa: the greater the number of pure colors in a composition, the closer it edges to chaos. To retain harmony with a large number of colors a designer or artist has to reduce their saturation.

In other words, a palette can be harmonized in just two ways:

1. Reduce the number of pure colors.
2. Reduce their saturation.

Often both are done at the same time.

The second method in the most general way can be formulated as „soil colors to give them something in common.” But… and second, in practice the main way to reduce saturation is to admix gray color of the same brightness. So let’s stick with the simpler and less general definition used under 2 above. 

By the way, harmony in music is similar. Any two notes taken at once sound harmonious, even if it’s a minor second or a tritone – alarming-sounding intervals maybe, but we’ll be able to distinguish the tones. Producing a harmonious chord, harmonizing three notes, is more difficult.

A seventh chord, which consists of four notes, is even more of a challenge, ninth chords with five notes are rare in music and thirteenth chords with six notes practically never heard.

So it is with colors – many pure colors are hard to manage. In my book „The Living Digital” (look above for a link) I use Rembrandt’s „Danae” to show how painters use just a few colors but many valeurs in their work. Another example is a study by Alexander Zavarin from his student days, which got him thinking in color. Here is the story Alexander tells:

„I didn’t like painting in the Stroganov School for Technical Drawing, and I wasn’t too good at it. I shared my troubles with a buddy. He passed on to me a piece of advice from a friend of his, an old painter. The man has said, throw away all colors from the palette except light ochre, red ochre, white and black. And try to do everything with these – from landscapes to portraits to still lifes. So I did and got my first A in the painting class. That’s how I learned to see color. Later on I brought back all the other colors, of course, but preference for muted tones stayed.”

When we can’t help but deal with a large number of pure colors, the only way to harmonize them is to mix with each other or some other color common to them all. In the case of our sample palette the results could look as follows: 

1. Original pallette of pures

2. The same palette harmonized through decreased saturation – gray was added.

3. The same palette again harmonized through adding a common tint – yellow in this case.

Palettes 2 and 3 may look pale at first, but if you cover the original and keep your eyes on these two for 10-20 seconds, then go back to the source colors, you’ll see how jarring and disharmonious those are. 

Further discussion of harmony would bring us to the practical question of how to reduce tint added to harmonize colors via the second method. Tinting is commonplace in film photography, but I won’t repeat myself here. You are welcome to Chapter 11, „Benchmark Nuetrals,” in the book.

Expressive color

The third criterion of good color is expression – an area quite outside of objective standards, a matter of preference. What some viewers find expressive and grand others don’t. But practice shows that a person’s idea of expression changes radically as his understanding of richness and harmony grows. As they gain experience of these two, people begin to look differently at color, photography and art in general. Things that once seemed dull often turn out to have a lot of expression to them, they excite and delight. And former favorites only evoke an ironic smile over one’s former naiveté. In my opinion, this is a definite indication of growth – perception has become subtler, taste finer and our judgments truer. I now smile at myself as I was a few years back and hope to be smiling at today’s Pavel (and this article) some time in the future.


11 thoughts on “What is good color?

  1. Hi Pavel,
    You almost spill the whole beans of your book here. It sums everything I’ve read in Lifelike’s chapters.
    Btw, great e-book. Congrats!

  2. A very fine tutorial, Pavel, and a discussion (as fully presented in LIFELIKE) that ought to be part of digital photography’s baseline.

    The best to you, as always –


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