Talking about color presents specific problems.
If I say square, or circle, or black, or white, you know precisely what I’m talking about.
If I say gray, or red, or blue, we’re all not necessarily on the same page. How gray? 30%? 50%? How blue? Cerulean? Prussian? Ultra-marine? How red? Carmine? Cadmium? Crimson?
We begin to see the subtleties inherent in color. I don’t mean just the nomenclature. I’m referring to the fact that each of us perceives color in their own specific way.
One color alone means nothing. It acts as in a vacuum, with no other colors to relate to. It is only when colors relate to other colors that the fun begins.
The impressionists were quite exceptional in using additive color. They would put a blue next to a yellow and the observer would see unmuddied pure green.
We are concerned with a totally opposite aspect of color. While the impressionists were using additive color, we have to be aware of subtractive color. For instance, if I wished to make a neutral gray look warmer, I could put it next to a very cool green. If I wanted to turn a brown cooler, I would juxtapose it with a warm red. In each case, the association with the second color changes the first color.
I wouldn’t let any of this talk about color throw you off, if I were you. I would just use it to look at colors and become aware of how they affect each other.
Color is seductive. It changes as it interacts with other colors, it changes because of the light falling upon it, and it changes as it becomes larger in size. This last aspect can be seen in the tears and rage of anyone who has chosen a color based on a two-inch sample and painted an entire room in it.
You cannot accurately remember color because of the previously mentioned factors. I’m so sure of that, I have a sucker bet I’ll make you. I’ll put down a piece of colored paper, you look at it and go off and find the color that matches it. If you do, I’ll give you one thousand bucks. If you lose, you give me a dollar.
“Color” is quite different from “colors.” In an image with many colors, we find that all the colors compete with each other rather than interacting with each other. The result: colors.
When you are working with limited colors, they have the capacity to interact. The result: color.
There really isn’t anything that you could call a “bad” color. It all has to do with the amount of color you use and in what context it appears.
The way to find color begins long before you go out shooting. It has to do with all the input and stimuli you’ve gotten from your environment. That includes movies, music, posters, books, your personal environment, and possibly most important, your perception of the arts.
It most certainly does not include, as necessary, the work of other photographers.
The art world has existed for more than 50,000 years. Picasso has suggested that the most incredible drawings he ever saw were the cave drawings at Lascaux, which were made about 17,000 years ago. The photography world has existed for roughly 200 years. Which do you think would be more fruitful to study?
The ability to be sensitive to what is around you is not something that turns on only when you’re out shooting. It should be on at all times. You will be amazed at how rich your visual experiences will be, even when you are not photographing.
This business of enjoying color (and gesture and light) will only come after some time. It will not be immediate, and when it happens and you excitedly reveal all this to your friends, you will be surprised at how many have no idea what you are talking about.
Some have said that if you take a great picture in color and take away the color, you’ll have a great black-and-white picture. But if you’re shooting something about color and you take away the color, you’ll have nothing.
And that’s the way it should be.
To review: Color is. That’s it. It’s all out there. What’s important is to stay open to it.
Don’t make plans to photograph color. Don’t look for one kind of color. You’ll walk past great color while you’re trying to complete your plans.
Finding light, gesture, and color is a little bit like trying to hold water in the palm of your hand. If you squeeze, it’s gone. If you’re patient, it will stay. This is part of trying to stay empty so that you can be filled with the things you love.
Don’t look for reds, or blues, or pastels, or saturated color, or no-color color, or vibrations. If you’re open to them, all these things will come to you. If you go after them, they will elude you.
If you have perceived and executed something wonderful in color, it can be the content of the image, and now it becomes your function to be your severest critic and figure out whether it’s really that good. If it is, congratulations.
Keep at it.