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Visual Literacy: Using Color

In last week’s post I recommended viewing the first 45 seconds of the trailer to the movie Traffic to get a sense of how color is used to enforce themes within the movie. For example, in Traffic, director Steven Soderbergh weaves together the lives of three separate characters to give the audience an overview of the complexities of America’s drug war. To give the viewer a sense of place, Soderbergh used a hazy orange hue for scenes in Mexico and a deep blue for scenes in Washington D.C. This serves as a visual reference point for the audience to understand where the action in any scene takes place. This is a conspicuous example of how visual artists use color to help convey messages in their work.

Using color as a tool for influencing your audience’s reaction isn’t limited to filmmaking. Photographers, graphic designers, web and interactive designers can all exploit color as a powerful influencer.

Take, for example, this photo of an amateur bull rider. In full color, the weight of the image is conveyed through his expression.













An orange sepia-tint washes the image in a sense of nostalgia.













A green tint gives the image a sinister appearance. Suddenly, the look on the bull rider’s face becomes more menacing than content.













The important thing to remember is color is always communicating with your viewer. It is your role to ensure the messages communicated are intentional and complementary to the primary themes in your photos.

Additional References:
Colors: Their Connotations and Perceived Meanings
Color Symbolism and Psychology
Cracking the Color Code: “Hero”


2 comments for “Visual Literacy: Using Color”

  1. How much brainwashing do you think the government does with this exact way to influence young lives?

    Posted by Scott | May 16, 2009, 9:52 am
  2. Scott,
    I think you raise an important point. Photographs, movies and graphic design has long been used as propaganda by governments and used by advertisers to strengthen the impulse to buy.

    One of my goals in spreading the ideas of visual literacy is to help others “read” the messages, both implicit and explicit in design, photos and videos. This helps the viewer make an informed decision on the objectivity of the information and whether or not the messages contained within the art should be trusted.

    Certainly, parents should take a leading role in helping their children decipher the often subtle messages in the written word as well as visual media. I would love to see classes like this taught in schools.

    Posted by jay | May 16, 2009, 3:32 pm

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