When I think of color, I think of light. Light illuminates color. It gives it a reason for being there. Without light, every tree, every body, every blade of grass, every grain of sand—every thing would be the same; it would be black.
Content creation is the business—my business—of creating imagery, visual language, stories that connect brands with consumers. I could not do what I do without light. Light reveals the composition, the color, the contrast, the type and the story.
I give you an unmade bed—at least the image of a comfortable, unmade bed. Layers of soft, white sheets folded among fuzzy and warm gray blankets. What’s the story that holds that image together? Is it a rainy Saturday morning in October? Maybe it’s 8:30 in the morning. There is a large window over the bed that faces north. Imagine what the light that reveals this scene looks like. Probably soft. Slightly blue. Let’s move outside, away from the bed. It’s now 8:30 in the evening. The sky is a dark gray. It is ominous; something’s about to happen. There’s a plate of food thrown across a table. The light feels harder, the shadows longer.
For you, me and humanity, color is more than the essential business of printing presses, plates, ink or paint. Color is an essential catalyst for cognitive thinking. We see through constant visual cues that trigger within us the things we love, miss, are motivated by and long for. Places, people and yes, even the products that have been brought to us by brands. The process of using color and leaving its impression on us is automatic and deeply ingrained. We can be green with envy, blue with sadness, red with rage. Changing our thinking to red in another context when accompanied by white and blue. What now pours into your mind? Not just any flag. One you may give your life to defend.
A Founding Father’s Findings
Benjamin Franklin would give his life to this country, but few know he also dedicated his life to color defined by light and the power it had on our lives. He was a printer first and foremost, among other posts (diplomat, postmaster, statesman and scientist).
Ben was one of the first to understand and record how light and color were connected. He took a number of little square pieces of cloth of various colors. They were black, deep blue, lighter blue, green, purple, red, yellow, white and a few other shades of the same. Ben laid them all out upon the snow on a bright, sunshiny morning. In a few hours the black, being warmed most by the sun, was sunk below its rays; the dark blue almost as low, the lighter blue not quite so much as the dark, the other colors less as they were lighter. The white remained on the surface of the snow.
He used the results from this experiment to inform color choices in everyday life. He recommended the manufacture of white linen summer hats with large brims, lined with black so light would not reflect back into peoples’ faces. He suggested a summer line of light-colored military uniforms for soldiers who frequented warmer climates.
Although he preferred wine to beer (the quote oft attributed to the Founding Father, “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy,” was actually about wine!), Ben was early to realize beer warms much sooner in a black mug set before the fire than in a white one, or in a bright silver tankard. Ben knew his colors, his light and his opportunities to make a difference, and his place in a new, innovative, powerful country he loved.
Well before Ben Franklin, the art, science and business of content creation through photography was taking shape.
The camera obscura—the “dark room”—was the predecessor of the modern camera. About 100 years before Benjamin Franklin’s birth (around 1604), thought leaders were experimenting with a new scientific technique. Also referred to as a pinhole camera, the camera obscura is the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a surface such as a wall is projected through a small hole in that surface. A reversed and inverted image is revealed on a surface opposite the hole. The surroundings of the projected image need to be relatively dark for the image to be clear, so many historical camera obscura experiments were performed in dark rooms, like a giant camera. Light travels straight through the hole and then changes when it is reflected and absorbed by an object. The light retains information about the color and brightness of the surface of whatever the object is—like an eyeball.
The human eye is a camera obscura with a small hole (or pupil), a lens and a surface (or retina), where the image is formed. It is, in fact, the oldest and best camera design on Earth. Every other camera is designed for our eye’s enjoyment.
For the human eye and every other camera that came after it, color is huge. It’s still a big deal and always will be. But the light is everything—so let there be light. Without it, there are no warm, summer evening apple pies and there are no soft, blue, rainy mornings. We wouldn’t have a new summer fashion line of snappy uniforms and we wouldn’t be able to discern two small points of cyan. There would be no color at all. Actually, there would be nothing at all. We should never take color for granted—but we do. We take so much for granted. The visuals that we create and share and comment on, the press checks we attend, the fall foliage. Even the light that illuminates our monitors, laptops and devices. That light reveals the color to us on the digital page. If you’re looking for color, look for the light.
My “Lightbulb” Moment
When I first noticed what light could do—when I could no longer take it for granted—I was a junior art director at my second job, on my second day. The place was a photo studio that also did scanning (photography was still film then), post production and prepress. It was called turnkey production back then. Turnkey evolved and eventually became what we classify as integrated content creation and production today.
It was fascinating and I loved it. I was standing in a room, craning my neck and on the tips of my toes looking over the shoulders of two retouchers as they reviewed an image. One of the managers was giving me a tour of the post-production room and introducing me to the three-person team. “Plusstoosee,” they said as if everyone in the room knew what they were saying. “Perfect.” These were three kinda crusty, kinda cool, hippy retouchers—maddish scientists. They poured over their photographic stew like I wasn’t there and I had no idea what was going on. I was physically and metaphorically in the dark.
It was explained to me that one of the maddish scientists, Fred, was advising another, Tom, to add two more points of cyan. There it was again—plusstoosee. And whether I knew it at the time or not, he was right. Those guys knew their color. Those two points were almost invisible to me then, but I can clearly see the difference now. I learned a lot more at that job than nuanced post-production direction, though. Those guys, and many more talented people, taught me about the business, clients, creative, production, prepress and printing. Color. They taught me the process. I loved it. This business had a scent, a feel, certainly a look—all of it in vivid color.
The commercial photo business and storytelling through imagery caught my eye in a big way. I started to build photographs, controlling the composition, the optics, the light and the color, one piece after the other. I began to understand and appreciate my perception of color in different ways.
My introduction to the vernacular of the prepress world that began many years ago follows me even now. As a photo art director, I approached color through the lens of sweep paper and paint. I could appreciate the distinction between 10 different shades of white. Now years later, I’m a creative director at the Schawk Content Studio in Chicago. A lot of what I do today is talk about how quality photography can enhance a brand’s digital shelf, website, signage, catalog and the package as well. Regardless of the vehicle for that photo, though, I like to talk to agencies, clients and colleagues about the ideas and concepts that inform what’s happening within the four walls of an image. There’s a story in the composition, the optics, the light and the color.
Today I perceive color through light in new ways, through new channels. The quality of everything around us, the devices, the sweaters and the images—all of our stuff is a reflection of light. The best lens we know—our eyes—perceives the light reflected by whatever that thing might be. We give it a name. A color. We usually can do that by determining a visual cue, by use of a measurement of hue, saturation and brightness of that reflected light. That’s color.
It’s not merely a big deal. It’s huge.
About the Author: With a background in fine art, painting, design and photography, Owen Pratt has led and inspired creative teams to bring brands to life for nearly 20 years. A passion for always searching for the larger, more impactful story that can be told through images and words, Owen is masterful at achieving the right balance between art and science. His extensive experience includes work benefiting world-class brands including Nike, Oakley, Jockey, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, The Home Depot, Procter & Gamble, Miller Coors and other industry leaders. Learn more about Schawk and its Product, Food & 360 Photography services.
To learn how to leverage the light to create compelling content to reach customers and impact your brands performance, view Owen recorded BrandSquare webinar, titled “The Brand Benefits of a Photographic Memory.”