Creating color harmony

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Creating a great painting is not a simple feat. As long as I’ve been in this business of creating art, the more I’ve discovered it never gets easier. There is always more to learn, therefore, the knowledge that a painting can always be improved exists. One thing is certain, we can only paint to our level of understanding. So, gaining that knowledge and consistently applying it to our work is the only way we will grow as artists.

One area in which I find many artists struggling is in the area of color…color mixing and achieving color harmony. I hope this article will shed some helpful light on the topic. (Click images to enlarge)

What is color harmony?

Color has three significant properties: Hue, Value, and Intensity. When people describe a color, they give it a name: purple, red, green, yellow, etc. That is called its Hue, and for most people that’s as deep as it goes. But, for us artists, that limited depth of understanding will never allow us to ever create a painting of significance. Artist’s that are producing quality work are never satisfied just knowing what color something is. Yes, it’s a starting point but totally insufficient when it comes to creating accurate color…necessary in achieving color harmony.

How dark or light a color is refers to its Value. Where it falls on a gray scale from white to black is a critical consideration.

The colors on the bottom row are seen as their true value on the top row. The Intensity of a color can easily blind us to its value.

Correctly identifying a color’s Hue and Value are necessary when attempting to mix a color; however, it doesn’t stop there. The correct brightness or dullness of a color must also be discerned when trying to mix the right color. That brightness is called a color’s Intensity. Tom Browning says:

“You must be able to alter the intensity of a color to create color harmony in your paintings.”

If any one of the three: Hue, Value, or Intensity are out of sync, just a little, we will have an inharmonious painting.

Think of it this way…some things just don’t go together; just consider two people who have nothing in common and disagree about everything…not a good choice for a mate. Let’s try having a glass of milk along with some horseradish and grapefruit for breakfast. It won’t be long before you’ll have a very upset stomach. Color that is not harmonious is just like that. When the Hue, Value, and Intensity of a color are incorrect, they become incompatible and we have a painting that lacks harmony.

“Country Living” – 16″ x 16″ – Oil. This is the painting I did for my first DVD, “Limited Palette Landscapes”.

When the Hue is incorrect, the color is inharmonious with the rest of the painting, and incompatible with the quality and color of the light.

Color harmony is when the Hue, Value, and Intensity of a color work together in unison without drawing undue attention to themselves. When one is out of harmony with the others, it’s noticeable.

“Back Road Discovery” – 10.12″ x 20.25″ – Oil

Here is an example of a poor value choice. In this case the sky is significantly too dark for what it represents and in its relationship to the landscape.

Why is color harmony important?

In my youth, I was a trumpet player. I practiced a lot in order to get good. Getting good meant being able to play a piece of music with emotion and not missing any notes. As a senior, and first chair,  in the high school band, I was selected to perform a trumpet solo for the final concert of the year. I was so nervous when it came my time to play, I was shaking. “Come Back to Sorrento” was my selection. It is a beautiful piece of music and I performed it well in practice, but when it came to hitting a few particularly high notes during the solo, I missed a couple. I was totally embarrassed. Even though my nervousness, I was told, contributed to a beautiful vibrato, the missed notes, regardless of how well played the rest of the piece was, resulted in an overall inharmonious performance.

Who is happy with a performance like that? I wasn’t, and my Dad sure wasn’t. That’s how we should look at our paintings. We should be critical. A misplaced piece of color of the wrong hue, value and/or intensity is unsettling. It doesn’t fit. As artists we need to recognize such errors and correct them…not say, “Oh, well, let it be, let it be.”

“At the Edge of Town” – 24″ x 30″ – Oil

The Intensity of the color in the middle ground is incompatible with the rest of the painting. The intensity of the color overwhelms the overall quietness of the painting and draws attention from the area of the car.

Color harmony is important because it contributes to the overall unity of a painting and provides the viewer with a fulfilled experience rather than an unsettling one.

How to create color harmony

The appeal of a new color coming out on the market presents an overwhelming temptation to purchase, for some. All those wonderful colors look great on the palette, so adding another one will look even better; better yet, that additional tube color will surely contribute to more colorful, pleasing paintings, one thinks. It’s like a wannabe athlete thinking that better equipment alone will allow him to win races.

Unless you know what you’re doing, more tube colors on the palette will only result in more variations of mud.

I have found, after more than 30 years of teaching, that those that lack understanding and knowledge of color and color mixing would greatly benefit by removing color from the palette rather than adding it. I suggest, until you grasp what the three primaries of red, yellow, and blue can do for you, that you eliminate everything else. You can always add additional tube colors later, but begin with just the three primaries. What three primaries is entirely up to you.

Here are some immediate benefits of working with a limited palette:

1 – It greatly simplifies the process of understanding color.

2 – It speeds up learning how to mix color to achieve desired mixtures.

3 – It forces the intermixing of all the colors on the palette.

4 – It automatically creates color harmony

5 – It shows very clearly that color relationships are more important than matching the color seen.

6 – It encourages experimentation in using major divisions of the color wheel.

I deal with all this very extensively in my book, Limited Palette Unlimited Color, and my DVD, Create Unlimited Color with a Limited Palette. I appreciate these kind comments from artist, Bill Inman, : “John is such a wonderful person, artist, and teacher. He wrote an incredible book, Limited Palette Unlimited Color, with an accompanying video with Streamline Publishing that is one of the great modern feats of art.”

***Next week: “Selecting Primaries”


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I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest teaching video and book. The video and accompanying book, shown here, along with my first video, “Limited Palette Landscape”, include everything I’ve taught in my workshops. You can now take my oil painting workshop right in the comfort of your home, and for a lot less money than physically being present. (Click image to learn more)

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John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Living Master. To view his art and bio, please click HERE.


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