Tutorial: Color in Composition

Color is an integral part of the visual experience of humans. Through color, we receive a wealth of information about light, materials, and textures, which is critical during our interaction with our environment. In our image-making context, color can either make or break a scene. Using it correctly can help us convey the intended mood and guide the viewer to what’s important. Using it wrongly can destroy continuity, impair realism, or otherwise disturb and confuse the viewer.

This is the second chapter from a full workshop that comes under the title Understanding Color. Having already covered some introductory material about color physics and the human eye, it is now time to go back to our image-crafting context and try to understand the role color plays in our scene and ultimately in the story we want to tell.

The Three Uses of Color

We can identify three different levels at which color can affect our scene: composition, mood and naturalism. The composition is about setting up a focal element through the use of color contrasts and hierarchy. Mood refers to the psychology of color and its effect on the viewer’s emotional response. Naturalism refers to the correct use of hue, saturation, and brightness to produce a result that closely resembles the real world. In this chapter, we will expand on the first level, composition. The two following chapters will focus on mood and naturalism respectively.


As already covered in this tutorial, the main goal of composition is to establish a focal element, so that the viewer’s eyes are casually and automatically drawn to what’s important in the scene, thus avoiding confusion and information overload. Since we’ve already elaborated on the topic, we will only spend some time applying the theory in the context of color while also adding some important new ideas.

a. Contrast and hierarchy

To use color as a compositional element we need to think about contrast (remember, the same is true about value and saturation). The eye will be naturally drawn to the areas of the scene where the highest color contrasts appear.

Let’s look at the image below. This is a classic example where color alone creates the contrast necessary to identify the key elements in the scene and to ultimately tell the story. If we study the value and saturation hierarchy of the image, we can see they appear relatively uniform — almost no contrast exists between the walking mechs and the surroundings (mainly the sky and ground). But look at the color hierarchy: this is where the magic lies! The mechs pop up in a striking manner and that makes the entire scene.

© Simon Stålenhag
Value, saturation and color channels. Notice how low the contrast is in the first two channels and how striking it is in the color channel.

However, one may ask the obvious question: how to pick colors that contrast well with each other? Clearly, the choice of the blue-yellow combination here is not accidental. The answer lies in something called color harmony theory which we will cover in a later chapter. For now, let’s only say that the two colors are complementary (or opposite) and are, thus, in high contrast with each other. Notice, also, how minimal the color palette is. Almost no other color hues exist outside the midnight blue and golden yellow. This ensures clarity and readability. The brain only reads two areas: the blue background and yellow figures. This image is abstract in many ways. We just get fooled by the wealth of details and textures — and this is where true mastery comes in and makes the difference.

To sum it up, our example shows that just by using color contrast we can create a clean and easy-to-read composition where the hierarchy of elements is evident.

Let’s look at another example. Once again, color is used effectively to establish a strong focal element — basically the bright triangle in the middle. The contrast is evident in the color channel, with the vivid orange and green instantly popping out. This time, however, the same high contrast can be seen in the value and saturation channels. The hierarchy is consistent between all three channels.

Value, saturation and color channels. The contrast is consistent between all three of them.

It turns out that this is exactly how light and color functions in the real world. There is a direct and precise correlation between hue, saturation and brightness. Wherever there is light (sunlight in our example) we have high brightness, high saturation and warmer hues.

We will cover this in more detail in a later chapter. For now, what’s important to keep in mind is that contrary to the previous example, where contrast appeared in a single channel, we can establish a strong focal element by pushing the contrasts in all three channels simultaneously.

b. Clean shapes

When building an image, we shouldn’t only treat color as an attribute of objects but as an object itself, in the sense that it creates shapes and forms. This sounds weird at first, so let’s go through an example that illustrates the idea.

Upon looking at this painting, the eye automatically reads two main colored areas or shapes: the orange foreground and the blue background. This is possible because the two colors that were chosen are once again complementary and are, thus, in high contrast with each other. The compositional advantage of this move is huge: first, the background is clearly and boldly distinguished from the foreground and the two are nicely balanced together. Second, the border between the two areas (the silhouette of the architectural elements) is easily readable. And third, it overall contributes to a low information scene, where after grasping the main idea, the viewer is free to discover finer details and textures.

Hermann David Solomon Corrodi, “An Eastern Exit”

But that’s not all there is to it. Notice the main figure (or the main character) positioned on the central axis of the canvas. It is assigned with the same blue as the sky. Once again, the silhouette clearly pops out against its background. In a way, the blue area bleeds into the orange one, connecting the two. Even the kid next to the woman is assigned with a complementary color. The rest of the figures are assigned with red and blue hues which are in less contrast with their background or with white tones which bring more contrast and depth.

All in all, if one studies this painting for a while, they can see it is highly schematic and beautifully simple. Learning to read these “hidden” shapes in images can be very beneficial. Then, you can use them to your advantage. To conclude, the take-home message can be expressed as follows: always go for large, uniformly colored areas that the eye can easily read and identify as shapes. In this way, your composition will be balanced and your focal element will be easily established.

Below is another example, this time from the Archviz domain. The underlying idea is exactly the same. The viewer can easily read three distinct areas or shapes in a triad color scheme (more on this in a later chapter). This makes for a balanced composition, with a clear hierarchy and a strong focal element (which is the building). The silhouette of the building is also nicely outlined.


The take-home message from this chapter can be this: we need to treat color not just as an attribute of the image but as a compositional element in itself. We identified two different levels at which color can be used to improve our compositions, the first being contrast and hierarchy and the second being clean shapes. Mastering these skills will give us the ability to create simpler but more sophisticated scenes — to say more with less. This, for example, is more evident in graphic-style and abstract works where color is the primary compositional tool.

And one final note: we cannot emphasize enough the importance of contrast in image-making. Make it a habit to always look at the relations between elements and not their absolute values. The human mind perceives the world through contrast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *