Colour Schemes

Last week I looked at the science of colour: what it is, how our eyes see it, and how cameras see and process it. Now I’m going to look at colour theory – that is, schemes of mixing colours to produce aesthetically pleasing results.


The Colour wheel

The first colour wheel was drawn by Sir Isaac Newton in 1704, and it’s a precursor of the CIE diagram we met last week. It’s a method of arranging hues so that useful relationships between them – like primaries and secondaries, and the schemes we’ll cover below – can be understood. As we know from last week, colour is in reality a linear spectrum which we humans perceive by deducing it from the amounts of light triggering our red, green and blue cones, but certain quirks of our visual system make a wheel in many ways a more useful arrangement of the colours than a linear spectrum.

One of these quirks is that our long (red) cones, although having peak sensitivity to red light, have a smaller peak in sensitivity at the opposite (violet) end of the spectrum. This may be what causes our perception of colour to “wrap around”.

Another quirk is in the way that colour information is encoded in the retina before being piped along the optic nerve to the brain. Rather than producing red, green and blue signals, the retina compares the levels of red to green, and of blue to yellow (the sum of red and green cones), and sends these colour opponency channels along with a luminance channel to the brain.

You can test these opposites yourself by staring at a solid block of one of the colours for around 30 seconds and then looking at something white. The white will initially take on the opposing colour, so if you stared at red then you will see green.

Hering’s colour wheels

19th century physiologist Ewald Hering was the first to theorise about this colour opponency, and he designed his own colour wheel to match it, having red/green on the vertical axis and blue/yellow on the horizontal.

RGB colour wheel

Today we are more familiar with the RGB colour wheel, which spaces red, green and blue equally around the circle. But both wheels – the first dealing with colour perception in the eye-brain system, and the second dealing with colour representation on an RGB screen – are relevant to cinematography.

On both wheels, colours directly opposite each other are considered to cancel each other out. (In RGB they make white when combined.) These pairs are known as complementary colours.



A complementary scheme provides maximum colour contrast, each of the two hues making the other more vibrant. Take “The Snail” by modernist French artist Henri Matisse, which you can currently see at the Tate Modern; Matisse placed complementary colours next to each other to make them all pop.

“The Snail” by Henri Matisse (1953)

In cinematography, a single pair of complementary colours is often used, for example the yellows and blues of Aliens‘ power loader scene:

“Aliens” DP: Adrian Biddle, BSC

Or this scene from Life on Mars which I covered on my YouTube show Lighting I Like:

I frequently use a blue/orange colour scheme, because it’s the natural result of mixing tungsten with cool daylight or “moonlight”.

“The First Musketeer”, DP: Neil Oseman

And then of course there’s the orange-and-teal grading so common in Hollywood:

“Hot Tub Time Machine” DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

Amélie uses a less common complementary pairing of red and green:

“Amélie” DP: Bruno Belbonnel, AFC, ASC



An analogous colour scheme uses hues adjacent to each other on the wheel. It lacks the punch and vibrancy of a complementary scheme, instead having a harmonious, unifying effect. In the examples below it seems to enhance the single-mindedness of the characters. Sometimes filmmakers push analogous colours to the extreme of using literally just one hue, at which point it is technically monochrome.

“The Matrix” DP: Bill Pope, ASC
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” DP: Adam Greenberg, ASC
“The Double” DP: Erik Alexander Wilson
“Total Recall” (1990) DP: Jost Vacano, ASC, BVK


There are other colour schemes, such as triadic, but complementary and analogous colours are by far the most common in cinematography. In a future post I’ll look at the psychological effects of individual colours and how they can be used to enhance the themes and emotions of a film.


Colour Schemes