Colour seems to be a topic of both great satisfaction and (at times) great consternation among those of us who create with it: intense delight in a beautiful colourway, intense frustration and needless insecurity in attempting to create that pleasure from scratch.
Much like food and music, the experience of colour is heavily influenced by cultural conditioning and emotional associations, therefore I don't believe that "rules" can adequately govern such a subjective experience, nor are there Right or Wrong combinations. There are however, colourways that evoke a desired personal response, or capture the essence of an object or phenomenon more or less successfully, and a basic ability to analyze the attributes of a successful colour or combination can aid immensely in understanding how to create or emulate a particular effect. I really believe the search for a winning colour "formula" is futile - worse than that, it circumvents a rich world of exploration and mindful seeing.
I suppose I should make the disclaimer that I have no degrees in the arts (just mundane things like microbial genetics and medicine) and I certainly make no claims that this is the only, or even the best way to approach the topic. All I am really doing is sharing the fruits of a bit of research, and ideas for looking closely at the beauty around you - because I really believe Nature is the best teacher.
Once I declared my intent to write about this, I found it tough to divide the topic into discreet sections, but I thought it made sense to start where I started - and introduce some features of the software tool I use along the way. PhotoFiltre is a freeware photoeditor (no business association whatsoever - it works, it's available to everyone, the price was right when I needed it.) The functions and tools I use are very basic, and I'm quite sure are available in most commercial photoediting programs.
So.... let's start with a seemingly simple phenomenon: a clear blue summer sky.
(Simple enough, in fact, to gain ubiquity as a crayon.)
PhotoFiltre has a number of tools in the pull-down "filtre" menu (top row) that are useful for teasing out component colours, but my favorite is the Artistic -> Watercolour -> 1 option. (Another neat tool is the Stylize -> Mosaic, though I find that a bit rigid. All a matter of personal choice.)
A slice of sky given the above treatments:
Here's where it gets fun. Go to the right hand menu column, select the dropper and suck up a colour from your picture. Open a fresh page (blank page, far left on the horizontal menu), go to filtre -> other -> grid generator, decide how big the squares should be (40 pixels gives a nice chunk of colour) and create your blank palette. Now back to the vertical menu on the right, select the paint bucket and fill in a square with the colour you just sucked up. Carry on for as long as you like, sucking up shades from different parts of your photo and dropping them in your palette. (You don't actually have to alter the photo at all before doing this, but I find it helps me to see the component colours more readily.)
What you do with that palette is a topic for another day, but the simple act of creating it will cause you to take a closer look at "common" things.
Some of the loveliest surprises come from subjects normally considered to have lost their beauty, such as these November leaves, long since discarded by their branches and rendered brown and sodden by a week of rain.
Using the watercolour function:
They turn out to be a delicious confection of chocolate and lavender.
Next week: some basic colour theory, and how to play with it onscreen.
I would love to hear any comments or questions, and please do let me know if I've been unclear about any part of the process.