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the color whirl
how to cool a hot skyline


Whew! You can almost feel the heat. Reds, oranges, yellows and golds radiate from every molecule; even the water is hot. San Diego, a famously balmy city, never looked like this in real life. But the assignment is to create a brochure cover—one a convention bureau would like, or for any event in which the city itself is part of the attraction—and this dramatic, golden skyline is the photo we have. So the challenge is, how do we cool it off so visitors won’t come expecting to swelter? The answer is found on the color wheel between ice blue and yellow, in the turquoise blues and verdant greens of springtime. Watch.

Find the palette in your photo

Every photo has a natural color palette; first step is to find it and organize it. First reduce the photo to a manageable number of colors; easiest way is to create a mosaic using Illustrator’s Object Mosaic function (Filter>Object Mosaic). Working from the biggest areas (sky, skyline, water) to the smallest, extract colors with the eye-dropper tool. For contrast, pick up dark, medium and light pixels of each color. Sort your selections by -color and each color by value. It’s obvious just by looking that this palette is very narrow.

Find the palette in your photo

Every photo has a natural color palette; first step is to find it and organize it. First reduce the photo to a manageable number of colors; easiest way is to create a mosaic using Illustrator’s Object Mosaic function (Filter>Object Mosaic). Working from the biggest areas (sky, skyline, water) to the smallest, extract colors with the eye-dropper tool. For contrast, pick up dark, medium and light pixels of each color. Sort your selections by -color and each color by value. It’s obvious just by looking that this palette is very narrow.

Now widen the range . . .

Color is made darker or lighter by adding black (a shade) or white (a tint). Black and white, being color neutral, do not change the color . . .

but only the -value. As a result, any one color plus its own tints and shades -always coordinate naturally. Such a palette is called monochromatic.

The opposite, or complement, of the warm oranges is blue, the coldest color.

Adding yellow to blue yields the cool range—the colors of water, new growth, springtime. These are peaceful colors, tranquil and refreshing.

As with a single color, all the hues that share a color (blue in this case) coordinate naturally. Any color in this range will work with any other.

Coldest Monochromatic blue—note the dark, -medium and light—is very cold and has the highest contrast. Blue and orange are -opposites; they have nothing in common. High contrast means high energy.

Warmest Because of its proximity to yellow, monochromatic yellow-green has the most color in common with the photo and yields the warmest -image; it doesn’t really cool the skyline very much.

Cool Coolest, -prettiest and most refreshing is a mix of blues and greens; the greens share yellows with the photo, while the blues provide the ice. The colors shown here have similar value, soothing low contrast.

Moving toward yellow warms the image slightly; the dark blue-green corner adds contrast. Now that you have the idea, you’re on your own; working in just this narrow range you’ll find many interesting variations:

Low-contrast tints are soft and undemanding. A baby products convention.

High-contrast corner highlights the checkerboard; light colors recede.

Vivid green freshens like damp grass, dark corner is a visual anchor.

Light yellow-green downplays the name, drawing attention to the city.

Click here to print a PDF of this article.

This article is excerpted from Before & After, How to design cool stuff, and is reprinted here by permission. © 2004 Before & After magazine, all rights reserved.

 
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