Here’s where I started my investigation: by studying the painters that I love to understand more about how they used color.
Over the centuries, master painters have used colors in a very deliberate and effective way based on color theory. If you’re familiar with the color wheel and color schemes, then you’ll know about harmonious color schemes, such as complementary, triadic and analogous colors.
As photographers, we can learn a lot from studying the master painters. You might already know about Rembrandt lighting, which is a very distinctive triangle of light just below the eye in a portrait, named after the Dutch master painter Rembrandt. And perhaps you’re familiar with the term “chiaroscuro”, which is the dramatic use of contrast in light and shadow introduced by Italian master painter Caravaggio. But have you ever noticed the limited color palette in ? Or how Da Vinci used “sfumato”, which is to deliberately make the outlines fuzzy and the colors faded to create a sense of depth? Many more ideas can be gleaned from the master painters, such as Van Gogh’s use of vibrant, complementary colors placed adjacent to each other to draw the eye and Vermeer’s use of split complementary colors to achieve a more subtle effect.
Since I’ve always been an admirer of the limited color palette of Rembrandt, my use of colors is most inspired by his work. That doesn’t mean it’s the only right way, it’s just my personal preference, so if you prefer other color palettes, feel free to try those.
After studying Rembrandt’s and other master painters’ works, I identified three secrets to both enhance the composition and to lead the viewer’s eyes effectively within that composition using color:
First, use selective contrast in light. (This rule also applies to black and white photography.) If your main subject in the composition has the highest contrast in light, then the eye will be drawn there because the human eye is always drawn to areas with the highest contrast in light and shadow.
Second, use selective contrast in color. Use the highest contrasting colors in your main subject to lead the eye there effectively. The eye seeks contrast, so placing contrasting colors next to each other draws the eye to that specific area. If you use complementary colors (colors sitting opposite each other on the color wheel), this effect will be increased.
Third, use selective saturation. The more saturated a color, the more the eye will be drawn to that area in your image. That means to make the area where you want the viewer to look more saturated than the rest of the image.