Visual Language: Colors

Published October 04, 2017

I began this weeks assignment where I begin most visual projects, at the Library of Congress online photos and prints collection. I often look to this resource when I want to emulate some aspect of a graphic style (Works Progress Association posters, turn-of-the-century carnival or theater posters, etc.), but find it generally inspiring for its collection of documentary photos of life in 20th Century America. Among these photos are well known and powerful photos (Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother), as well as many thousands of lesser known (and frankly less interesting) photos commissioned by various government agencies for various documentary reasons.

To create a personal color palette, I searched this archive not by content but by medium: Kodachrome – a film known for its vibrant over-saturated palette. Something about this film, “give[s] us those nice bright colors…the greens of summers,” according to Paul Simon, and I’m inclined to agree. Although there is an aspect of unreality in how the film renders a slightly enhanced color palette, it also seems to do the majesty of the natural world justice.

What follows are four (highly unscientific) color palettes as drawn from photos.  The first two photos are Kodachrome shots from the Library of Congress.  The third is a shot of a coast guard helicopter and the fourth is from one of Jean Painlevé’s remarkable documentary films.


Each of these color palettes contains a limited range of earth-tones (or sea-tones, in the case of the third and fourth) and an accent color which sets them off.  So while they each use five distinct colors (as the assignment dictated) – and their source photos contain many dozens more – the range of colors tends to feel quite natural.

For the second part of the assignment, I chose to work with the palette from the fourth photo (the Jean Painlevé film about shrimp):