CreativityColourA short discourse on colour contrast

A short discourse on colour contrast

Reading time: 3:30min | On the left a photo of an abstract colourful sunlight projection on the floor of the Cologne Cathedral which the Gerhard Richter Window creates when the sun is shining. This topic has been long on my list, but I’ve been reluctant to pen it down. Too complex, too vast, I thought. But I’ve been thinking a bit about contrast lately. Perhaps my thoughts make sense for you, so please bear with me.

The obvious starting point would be the luminance contrast which defines the distribution of dark to bright parts. We all know that from black and white photography and our visual senses of darkness and brightness. But let’s let that slip and concentrate on colours only.

First of all, we should ask ourselves: what exactly is contrast? I figure it’s this: Contrast describes the defining circumstances in our life. It’s hard to define things without counterparts. There’s no earth without sky, no woman without man, no single thing without context. The values in the context’s parts are the contrast. They are in a never-ending discourse.

As we all know, a discourse is a talk about things where opinions may not fall inline without conflict. In discourse, we want to reach an outcome where different views come together and create a result that may impact further actions. As we learned from Ludwig Wittgenstein language resembles pictures in our heads, and vice versa. The images in our head and real-life pictures show different items that have meaning to us. These meanings can be so vital to us that they may obscure any other information. The crying face of a baby may draw all the attention in such a way that we miss the looming menace of a red bus skidding towards us. If there were no crying baby, the bus would be loud and clear to see, and we would take swift action. (I’m sure you now have a vivid inner-picture of the crying baby and the looming crash.)

What has that to do with colour contrast? It makes clear what colour contrast can do and what it cannot do. In a picture, contrast can’t fight content. Content is always stronger and hence has no much say in our discourse about colour contrast. But if we leave out content, if we were to blur the crying baby face and the skidding bus to unknowability (like the colours in the Richter Window) and concentrate only on the colours, we would recognise extra information. These additional pieces of information are feeding our feelings; they do their work subconsciously. Information-wise it doesn’t matter whether the bus is red or white or if the baby wears a yellow or blue beanie. There is a bus, a baby and a beanie. But in terms of colour and thus our subconsciousness it does matter.

The red colour of the bus has a much higher warning force than white paint would have. The baby’s skin tone and hence her face has a stronger appeal with a blue beanie than with a yellow one. If we imagined the picture of the crying baby with a red bus and a blue beanie, we would get a much stronger idea of the story, the content that is, as if we imagined the picture with a white bus and a yellow beanie. So, in the end, colour contrast does matter but only so much. It can emphasise content or obscure content but only to a certain extent.

As with language, words and sentences, different colours in a picture are in discourse. It depends on the part-taking colours, whether this is a discourse of strong opinions and conflicts or rather a discourse of harmony and wellbeing. A colour contrast depends much on the category the colours involved fall into. We all would agree that a red bus on a blue skyline has a higher punch than a green bus on a blue skyline. That is because red is a signal colour and draws our attention inevitably while green is in the western culture primarily a consumption colour with hardly any signalling power.

In my opinion, there’s only one colour contrast that can be categorised: the warm-cold colour contrast. What we define as a warm colour and where we draw the line to cool colours lies in the eye of the beholder and thus is subjective. But we would all agree that orange is warm and sky-blue feels rather cold. The sunset on the beach would be a perfect match for a warm-cold contrast and has been photographed over a billion times. A sunset has hardly any discourse or content for that matter. It’s a no-story. But we love it for the colour’s sake, and its stark colour contrast — all driven by our subconsciousness and our delight for colours. Inevitably, we pull our phones out and shoot that sunset, over and over again. That’s the power of colour; it is all in our thymos as Francis Fukuyama would argue, that part of us where feelings like anger, love or happiness reside. We should talk more about colours.