Depending on which books you read and how far in history you're willing to go back, the story of color theory includes, among other notable charcaters, Leone Battista Albeirti (c. 1435), Leonard da Vinci (c. 1490) and even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, in 1810, published a 1,400-page treatise on color (and an abridged version is still in print, by the way). If you want to go back even further, of course, you would have to drag in the ancient Egyptians whose color theories were so strictly tied to religion that artists were told which colors they could use for certain subjects--and any variations from those options were severely frowned upon. And we all know just how severely the ancient Egyptians could frown upon things they didn't like.
For photographers, however, perhaps the most significant study of color begins with Sir Isaac Newton who, in the late 1660s, used a prism to divide light into the color spectrum with which we are all so familiar (but that probably had some of Newton's contemporaries muttering the word "witch" behind his back). Newton, not being one to let a good thing lie half done, then joined the ends of that linear spectrum into a circle, thus creating the prototype for the color wheel that artists and photographers use today. The color wheel is essentially a visual representation of the colors in the spectrum and it has many interesting uses. The primary practical use for photographers is to help us study the visual and psychological impact of various color combinations. It's a fascinating topic and one you could spend a lifetime studying, but being aware of just a few of the potential combinations of colors will enable you to choose themes to enhance and manipulate the mood of your photos. Here (very basically) are the main color themes:
- Monochromatic Color is the use of a single color (or very closely related colors) on the color wheel in various intensities and levels of saturation. If you were photographing ferns on the forest floor, for example, you might tighten the composition to limit your palette to a variety of shades of green. Monochrome color schemes are often interpreted as very soothing or calm.
- Analogous or Harmonious Colors are colors that are adjacent to one another on the color wheel. In the photo of petunias here, for example, the pinks and violets are very close to one another on the color wheel and, in fact, gradually merge into one another on blended color wheels. As with monochromatic colors adjacent colors tend to create a feeling of harmony and peacefulness. Because these color pairs are often found occurring naturally in nature, landscape designers and florists are big on analogous color combinations.
- Complementary Color is made of up two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel and that typically compete with one another. You might photograph a warm tone (yellow) ball of yarn contrasting with a cooler one (blue), for instance, in a still life. Complementary colors draw attention because of their inherent visual contrast.
- Split Complementary Color uses a particular color and the two colors adjacent to its complement. If green were your main color, for example, then red would be its complement. The two colors on either side of red would be the adjacent colors. A split-complementary color scheme provides good contrast but without being as brash as a straight two-color contrast.
- Triadic Colors consist of three colors that are found equally spaced around the color wheel--red, yellow and blue, for instance. The combination of these three colors tends to create an interesting feeling of both contrast and harmony and tend to make compositions look more balanced. Still life and product photographers often use a triadic color scheme for that reason--it's both vibrant and attractive.