Color Theory by Wencke Neumann

"Color is a power which directly influences the soul."

To me, a color addict, those words by Wassily Kandinsky couldn’t be more true.

Hello, my name is Wencke and I’m a passionate, self taught amateur photographer located in Germany, where I live with my four year old daughter (the main subject of my work and the reason I stepped into the photography world) and my husband.

I was thrilled when I was asked to write a blog post about color theory. Everybody knowing my work, knows I’m drawn to color. It is the perfect way to transport emotions and feelings, capture the mood of an event and draw the viewer in.

The right combination of color can not only make a photo appear more aesthetically pleasing, color and the targeted use of certain color combinations can influence feelings and emotions.

As photographers, we work with many different design options, such as composition. Color theory is just another of these tools and helps solidify our art. While it first may seem intimidating, knowledge in color theory has a beneficial impact on our work and can bring our photography to the next level.

In this article, I want to share my thoughts on color theory, hoping you will increasingly incorporate color theory into your photography in the future.

Let's start with the basics, because in order to understand color theory you need to know and understand those.

What is color?

"Color is the aspect of things that is caused by differing qualities of light being reflected or emitted by them."

The color wheel

Some of you may be familiar with this from art lessons at school and have some flashbacks.

The color wheel is an organized representation of color, which shows the relationships between the colors.

It consists of 12 colors: 3 primary, 3 secondary and 6 tertiary colors.

If you split the color wheel in the middle from top to bottom, you will separate the warm colors from the cool colors.

Mainly warm colors

Mainly cool colors

The color wheel is also a good guide to find color combinations that are aesthetically pleasing to the viewer.

Understanding how each of these colors interact with each other is based on color schemes.

Primary, secondary and tertiary colors

Primary colors - red, blue and yellow.

These are the "pure“ colors that can’t be made by mixing or adding

other colors together. Primary colors are used to grab the viewer’s eye.

The image above combines the three primary colors - the blue sky against the red flowers and yellow hose nozzle - which results in strong contrast.

Another use of the primary colors red, blue and yellow in a complete different setting .

Secondary colors

They‘re made by mixing primary colors. The secondary colors are Green (blue + yellow), purple (red + blue) and orange (red + yellow).

Each secondary color is directly opposite a primary color on the color wheel. That relationship — opposite on the wheel — is called “complementary.” Human eyes notice the contrast between

complementary colors more than other combinations.  

Tertiary colors

Tertiary colors are the secondary and primary colors mixed. Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet and Red-Violet are the tertiary colors.

The following part is all about combining and using the shown colors to make your work more appealing, balanced and interesting and to evoke certain feelings, moods and emotions.

The human eye prefers visually appealing color combinations, which are referred to as color harmonies.

Color Harmony

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are located directly across from each other on the color wheel. The opposition that complementary colors create becomes useful when we want something to really jump out at the viewer. Examples of complementary colors are blue and orange, or red and green. These colors are “complementary” because they work well together, meaning they can create a high-contrast and vibrant look, especially when used at full saturation as shown in the following examples. The high contrast between the chosen colors provides striking visual effects. It draws the viewer's eye into the image and helps to guide around the photography piece.

The pictures above show the complimentary colors - Purple and yellow.

In the pictures shown above I used the complementary colors Green and red/pink.

Above you see a collection of images with the contrasting colors blue and yellow. Those aren’t complementary colors per se, but still provide interesting and striking contrast. You may have noticed …I love the yellow - blue color combo and use on a regular basis.

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are located side by side in the color wheel. This type of color scheme provides harmony and gives the photography flow. Without the strong contrast of complementary colors, analogous colors are calming to the eye.

Analogous colors are naturally harmonious and analogous color harmonies are often found in nature because natural elements often feature colors that are close to each other. It is also a visually pleasing harmony as shown in my example images.

The analogous color combination here uses darker tones to accent and Highlight the bright yellow and yellow-green of the flower and butterfly. The dark green background helps accent the brighter areas without distracting from the main subject.

Analogous color combinations are typically seen in nature, for example during autumn

Monochromatic colors

Monochromatic color is different tints, shades and tones of a single color. Any color can be used to create a monochromatic color scheme. Use monochromatic colors to create a calm and serene scene and to attract attention and create focus.

Think of different shades of green in a Saint Patrick’s Day themed image. The same goes for red and Valentine’s Day.

A monochromatic image like the one shown above tends to have less distraction than a colorful image. This enables the viewer to pay more attention to what the image is about.

The blue sky and sweater in the image with my daughter looking up in the sky enhances the calm and serene feel of the monochromatic colors.

Triadic colors

Triadic colors are colors evenly spaced throughout the color wheel, framing a triangle. When placed side by side, a set of triadic colors can be interesting and vibrant and they create a sense of unity and balance. Any time you use triadic colors, it is best to keep them balanced. That means you should choose one of the three colors as the main color, and use the others as accent colors.

The image above mainly contains yellow/orange tones with the green of the grasshopper as an accent, whereas the flower image contains greens as the main color with pops of pink/red and yellow as accent colors. The use of this colors helps create a sense of balance.

Split complementary colors

A split-complementary color scheme is known to be a variation of a complementary color scheme. But rather than being a mixture of two colors, split-complementary colors contain a combination of three colors. One primary color mixed with two colors adjacent to its


Split-complementary colors are used well for contrast purposes.

The image above shows a yellow hoverfly. Yellow would be the complement of purple (in this case the flowers). So the split complementary color in my example is yellow green.

Tetradic colors

Tetradic colors are simply two sets of complementary pairs of colors that are found opposite each other on the color wheel. These types of colors look their best if only one of the four colors are used as a dominant color. You should also strive for a balance of warm or cool colors within the color scheme.

In my tulip image, yellow (warm) is the dominant color besides green (cool), a small pop of red (warm) and purple tones (cool) in the left corner.

Color psychology

Are you drawn to a particular color or color combination? Did you ever wonder why certain colors are used for specific reasons? The “science” behind this is called color psychology. It’s a form of color theory and “the study of how certain colors impact human behavior and emotions.”

Different colors have different meanings and psychological effects on us.

Let’s dive into this topic and find out what each color represents and symbolizes and which emotions and feelings it evokes.

The shown illustration gives a brief overview.

Warm colors…

…can create excitement or even anger. Typically, people are more drawn to warm shades. Red, orange, and yellow are inherently more welcoming than cooler colors.

RED: Red is all about love, passion, heat, joy, and power as well as anger. It is vibrant, stimulating and exciting

In the image above I dressed my daughter in a red shirt, mainly to create a complementary contrast between her and her (green) surroundings, but also to set the main focus on her