Some colours may be harmonious when they are displayed together and some may not. The human eye can perceive harmony or disharmony right away as it is a natural instinctive response. We don’t have to think about it to judge it. I haven’t researched on the origin of this response but, even if it is cultural, it has been so conditioned that it has become natural.
It seems that harmony is related to the notion of order and disharmony to disorder. So colours that are harmonious must belong to a scheme. And if they are too different from a scheme, they would be seen as disharmonious.
The triadic colour scheme is a combinaison of 3 colours in a picture or a painting that are not picked up randomly but are arranged as an equilateral triangle over the colour wheel.
This triadic system enables the photographer or the painter to choose a palette based on a contrast he wants to achieve while maintaining balance. There is inevitably one of the colours that is on the other side of the cold-warm colour contrast. But the balance is achieved by the two other colours on the same side, and by the fact that the triangle is a kind of basic sum up of the wheel.
There are 4 basic schemes. The first one is based on the primary colours, the second one is based on the secondary colours and the two last ones are based on the tertiary colours. This achieves balance as well, as the three colours belong to the same mixed palette.
How it works
Most often than not, the colours chosen are shades or tints of the reference colour. And they may not have the same value. You can have a light blue with a dark red and a basic yellow for example.
They are seldom seen sharing the same amount of space. More generally, one of the colour is used as a dominant colour, the second as a secondary colour and the last as an accent. But everything is possible.
In the photo ‘Mysterious Folds’, at the beginning of this post, the colour scheme is intermediary between the second and the third scheme. The greens are the dominant colours, the yellow-orange is the secondary colour, and the purple is the accent. The palette is cold (green, purple) with a warm contrast (yellow-orange).
The meaning and the storytelling
The meaning and the storytelling related to this scheme may be diverse but will fall into one of these categories :
- a three fold story : each colour represents a step
- an opposition and a middle way (the opposition is a natural one most of the time, it is not a feud that would be better rendered with the use of a two colour scheme and complementary colours)
- a neutral point splitting into two separate things (as a natural consequence)
- two separate things reconciled into something else (like a birth, a conception, a mixing)
- a trinity : three aspects of something making up a unity
- wholeness despite diversity
I could add other key words to this list but you get the picture, in the end, balance is the main theme.
Case study 1: the picture ‘Mysterious Folds’
Greens (dominant colour) = foliage, the context, the surrounding
Orange (secondary colour) = flower, the subject
Purple (accent) = buds and the background, the source
The emphasis is laid on the flower (the contrasting colour) which seems to emerge from the surrounding. It can be understood as a three fold story : a seed-source (the buds) in a nurturing context (foliage) gives birth to a flower.
Case study 2 : the picture ‘cornucopia’ (from this blog post)
The scheme is intermediary between scheme 2 and 4.
Yellow-green (dominant colour) : the pears, green grapes and the background
Reds (secondary colour) : the apples and the basket
Blue (accent) : the grapes in the foreground
Cornucopia represents the gifts of nature at the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the harvest that will give you whatever you need. There are just three kinds of fruit in the basket, but they represent all the fruits available. It is the story of wholeness despite diversity.
Case study 3 : Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer
The scheme 1 with primary colours.
Yellow (dominant colour) = the dress, parts of the turban
Blue (secondary colour) = other parts of the turban
Red (accent) = the lips
What should be perceived as an opposition is broken up by the triadic system. The turban displays two of the colours of the scheme, not just one. The turban is a way to hide the hair of the girl, at a time in history when modesty and chastity were praised values. Hair was considered too sensual to be shown in public. So we have here this opposition between modesty (as a social necessity) and the red lips. Remember we have a triadic system here, so a balance is reached at some point. Isn’t it a way to show that there is no real opposition, and that the turban is also a way to seduce? An attire to enhance the beauty of the girl? Modesty is achieved on a superficial reading, but the triadic system adds balance and unity to the interpretation.
As we have just seen, the triadic colour scheme is a well balanced system that enables the photographer or the painter to achieve some contrast but maintaining a balance at the same time. Interpretation is endless and playing with it opens the door to a great horizon of stories and twists within a story.
Many facets, like a diamond. A diamond that nobody can see as a whole. Some will see one facet, others a second facet but will be blind to the first one that his neighbour can see. I meet you and one of my sides is shining more. Some see only the defects, others see only the purity of the stone. I’m each and every side, I’m the purity and the defect, I’m an outside brilliance and a hidden mystery… Some facets are like mirrors and you think you know me while you only see you own reflection…
I’d like to meet somebody who knows the secret of unity, whose eyes can see beyond what they grasp at first sight. Somebody who will know and understand I can be one thing and another at the same time, one thing and its opposite on the same moment… somebody who won’t be scared away by the dark defect he guesses through a thinner part of me, who won’t be blinded by the most sparkling ideas he guesses beneath the surface. Somebody who will be wise enough to let me show what I want to hide, who will be able to witness the alchemy working on me, from darkness to the purest clarity. Wise enough to let oblivion settles on outdated memories of who I used to be.
A dream of a constant rebirthing day after day, an unseen mutation into an unknown state of mind… no change is death… one track mind is vicious circle… I feel the infinity of life through my soul and through my body, and I cannot but let it display all the varieties of its crystallized energy.
If you think that Photoshop has changed everything, maybe you need to be introduced to the masters of the darkroom. Before the digital era, skilled photographers did dodge and burn like we do it now digitally, they did combine several negative plates in order to make a new photograph, they did airbrush, literally, to paint or ink over retouched areas, they did mask, they did erase unwanted objects or shapes, they scratched, they painted and drew over the photographs to add details to overexposed areas for example. Photo manipulation does exist nearly since the invention of photography, earlier examples being from the Victorian era. Spirit photography, fantastic creepy photography, people with their heads off, were all the rage back then. Then surrealists and the dada movement used photomanipulation a lot. Propaganda used it a lot too and some dictators erased people they didn’t like from the pictures for example. Then advertising and fashion photography needed this art from the early stage.
So, take a tour.. here are 20 photos, altered or manipulated before the digital era and the widespread use of Photoshop.
‘Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness’.. that’s the way the poem goes.. Season of Thanksgiving and harvest festivals.. Season of the Olde Horn of Plenty and the myths of the bountiful Mother Earth.. Times have changed and we no longer need to store food and prepare ourselves for the long and dark winter days.. But let’s imagine it for a day, back when there were no such things as supermarkets, year-round-greenhouses and global market.. Can you smell the jam being made in a copper pan? Can you smell the spices of the chutneys being poured into jars? Can you feel the first cool breeze on your cheeks while you’re piling chunks of wood in the shed? Can you see the dark settling earlier and earlier day after day behind the windows? Can you taste the first autumn dishes of the year, and can you feel the burning of the hot steaming drinks in your hands? Can you fear death spreading over the land while trees shed their leaves and the soil becomes barren? Can you fear for your own health? Can you feel the comfort of a full cellar and kitchen? Can you pray for the light to come back?
These days, autumn holidays still celebrate this moment of transition between light and dark, warm and cold, fertility and death. And we gather together at beautifully laid tables, and we carve pumpkins in remembrance of days gone by.