Article:The power of colour in your photography – Let’s explore the colour Purple

“Color is joy. One does not think joy. One is carried by it.” Ernst Haas

Today I want to focus on how we can use colour in our composition, and I am going to focus on the colour purple to tell some stories and share some ideas with you that you can use straight away in your photography.

I am such a lover of colour in my photography – I have not done much black and white photography because colour speaks to me so powerfully, like it did for Georgia O’Keefe:

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”

For me colour brings such tremendous feeling to an image.

Colour can be used as a major element in our compositions – it doesn’t have to be an afterthought or just one of the many layers in an image.

Colour and shape can also be the whole composition. As it was also for the painter Wassily Kandinsky:

“For Kandinsky, art was a spiritual and emotional experience. He wanted his paintings to transcend recognized forms and express feelings through colors and shapes. To him, copying from nature stifled artistic expression.” Anne Butler on

I like, too, how colour is a sensory experience, but also a cultural one. How we perceived colour throughout history still echoes in our subliminal feelings about it.

The subject of this photo of is…purple! The contrasting yellow-green grass is simply framing it for impact. There is also the texture of the plant, which is pretty.

Colour brings feeling into your images

When we are looking at colour – any colour – as we look out into the world, it’s good to get quiet and think – how is this making me feel?

I think you need to be a little quiet so that you aren’t analysing how you feel, but you are allowing the feeling to arise naturally.

“I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold.” – Diane Arbus

As photographers we can use colour as a compositional tool

“Everything that you can see in the world around you presents itself to your eyes only as an arrangement of patches of different colors.” John Ruskin

I like to suggest simple ideas for composition, to help to break down what can feel like an overwhelmingly large amount of things to learn.

And by focusing on colour – any colour – we can help break the world down into subjects and elements to make it easier to find compelling subjects.

What you will now find after reading this is that you see purple everywhere. It will suddenly start to pop out at you in all kinds of interesting ways.

Early morning in Paris. I love the lines in this photo. The surreal colours create a slight otherworldliness.

And that is part of the reason I want to draw your attention to how significant your focus is.

So you can use this a seeing exercise (how much purple can I see today? Or yellow? Doesn’t matter what colour you pick.)

And you can use this as a way to create a little see-ing project.

We can also ask:

  • What does colour mean to you?
  • How do you use colour in your photography?
  • What can I see today?

Purple is a rare colour

“Purple combines the calm stability of blue and the fierce energy of red.” Bourn Creative

I like that it’s not a common colour; it’s rarer than, say, blue or yellow. I feel it a colour of great power, majesty and distinction.

What does it make you think of?

I recently read a literary exploration on Two Hundred Years of Blue (and I will do a photo exploration on the colour blue, as well as some others).

I found it fascinating to read about how single colours can create such a proud impact on our psyches.

It is has been suggested that until modern times we couldn’t see the colour blue (so what else can’t we see?)

And that is why Homer wrote about the ‘wine dark sea’ rather than a blue sea. In this amazing article they build a pretty strong case for how people didn’t see blue, until someone created a word for it in modern times.

I find this a fascinating idea. If people couldn’t see it then what are we not seeing now?

Or what can I see that you don’t, and vice versa? Totally trippy.

For me, it obviously chimes in with my teaching that generally, we notice very little – and it is by developing our ability to see more that we develop our photography.

It is also that our vision develops and changes as we expand our understanding of the world.

When we are taking photos, it’s important to lose as much of our thinking-baggage about the world is like this – and instead bring an attitude of: I would like to see things as they are. That way you open yourself up to so many more interesting experiences and ways to see things.

Purple works well with other strong colours.

Purple was made a in totally strange way

As a brilliant piece of history about the colour purple (it has a pretty extraordinary history), my favourite thing I’ve learnt about purple is this:

“Purple is a paradox, a contradiction of a colour. Associated since antiquity with regality, luxuriance, and the loftiness of intellectual and spiritual ideals, purple was, for many millennia, chiefly distilled from a dehydrated mucous gland of molluscs that lies just behind the rectum: the bottom of the bottom-feeders.” BBC Culture

Purple is not a real colour…

“There is no purple light in a rainbow. When white light splits through a prism or refracts as it passes through a raindrop, expanding in to bands of multicolored light, nothing purple comes out the other end.” Smithsonian Magazine

Purple is a composite, as though our brains can’t work out what it is and so have figured out purple. It is more on the ultraviolet end of the spectrum of light.

Mixed with blue, purple is such a calming colour. The desert, late evening

If we are wondering how this can help us – in my courses I often set people the challenge of choosing a colour to photograph. But it’s not just capturing the colour – it’s capturing the feeling of the color that is important.

It’s looking at the colour and feeling its qualities – and using your skills to capture that.

We can also think about all the other shades, colours and tones associated with purple – lilacs, violet, magenta, plum, mauve. We can explore the world through colour in many ways.

From grey to blue to orange to brown – what can we do with the vast array of colours available for us to work with?

I hope you have enjoyed our sojourn through the colour Purple. I’d love to know how you use colour in your photography. Let us know in the comments.

A little purple here. An early morning market in Paris. Again, the purple is showing up along with a strong yellow.

Happy photographing,

Anthony and Diana