Color Theory: OK– NOW, I Get It

I have always given credit to impressionist painters for the juxtaposition of colors in my garden. Purple shades are next to yellow hues, and red crocosmia flutes are surrounded by greens. The bellflowers, the closest to being blue, are next to purples, and the only orange blooms have a yellow neighbor. Looking out over this mixture every season, I have always been pleased with the result. If asked, I cited Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh as inspirations. Now, I see that my flower selections and placements had as much to do with physics as they did to French painters. 

Photography books aimed at beginners usually have a section on color theory. I have a few such books, and I’ve always ignored those chapters—they didn’t seem all that useful. Drawing and painting books have color sections as well, and they absolutely insist that one read them, which I did–sort of.  

First attempt at creating a still life background

Since late summer, I have been trying to create backgrounds for still life photographs. It seemed simple enough to grab some paint and have at it. But, experience quickly proved that approach to be a rookie “how hard could it be?” mistake. I wanted backgrounds with a mixture of colors and shades to add depth and feel to my images. I soon learned that the backgrounds I wanted required mixing paints and/or applying paints in layers, which made me pay far more attention to all those color theory chapters. Eventually, I created two backgrounds: a mottled brownish-yellow one and a second featuring silver, gray and black. They looked close enough to what I wanted, so encouraged, I continued pursuing acrylic painting, but for now, only backgrounds. Color theory, at this point, had moved from pedantic to practical. 

Color theory has stuck with me, even though I have done little photography in the last few months. I see it now in everyday situations and was very surprised to see it fully evident in my images. When writing the post, “My Journey, So Far…”, I went back through past photos and was shocked to see how obviously I had applied color theory when grouping flowers in my garden. Further, the flower images that resonated most strongly with me were those that fit color theory. I have a lot of complementary and analogous groupings!

My favorite crocosmia picture features a vibrant, red crocosmia tuft against a background of sunlit, yellow-green creeping Jenny.   

Crocosmia with Creeping Jenny background. Kodak UltraMax, Maxxum 7, June 2019

Yellow Tickseed is next door to lavender pincushions.  

Tickseed, pincushions and verbena, Fuji 400, Maxxum 5, June 2019

This epiphany is changing me in three ways. First, I am rethinking the still life images I planned. Initially, many were to be black and white; now, I am eager to experiment with color. Second, I will revisit my gardening plans for this spring and experiment with color theory when planting annuals. Finally, I won’t skip book chapters just because they don’t seem to apply to me. It would appear that I have a lot of reading to do…


  1. Jerome, Like so many things in life there can be a complexity in simplicity. A skilled technician can make something appear easy but once you get into it there is that moment of revelation when you say to yourself, this isn’t as easy as it looks. The next step is where so many fall by the wayside. Do you accept the challenge to dig deeper into the process or do you move on to something else. Most move on. The path to becoming a craftsman is filled with many personal challenges as well as technical. When you start understanding yourself you can actually begin the process of understanding the broader technical aspects of whatever you are attempting. I think your first attempt at a still life background shows that you have accepted the challenge. Did you notice that as you set up the shot you also started thinking about how to light it? You’ve started the journey to deeper understanding.

    1. As always, your comment is spot on. Indeed a bulb went off. Just as I now see an object and get an immediate feel for how to draw it, looking at scene, I now think about light and perspective. I have art books and photography books. My focus on still life is driving this because, since I have control over all aspects, I can decide what I intend to convey and how to do it. I love this!

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