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Color Chords - Living in Color Harmony

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Now I've heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

- Leonard Cohen

Of all the tools available to a painter, none is more exciting or evocative than color. Color conveys the illusion of light and shadow, mood, and can suggest atmosphere or space.

Like playing the violin or writing haiku poetry harmonic color is a skill you acquire only through study and practice.

Think of your palette as an instrument, with each color representing a different note on the keyboard. A painter with an understanding of color relationships and color moods can play visual music without needing to think about the technical aspects of the colors. Many painters simply and confidently play the visual chords, major or minor, and lose themselves in self-expression.

Raised in a musical family, the artist Paul Klee was fascinated by the structural similarities between music and art. Klee’s painting above “In the Style of Bach” reimagines a musical score as an arrangement of graphic symbols like foliage, a crescent moon, and stars. 

Many scientists and artists have diligently and unsuccessfully explored the synesthetic relationship between music and color hoping to match each color with a sound. Even Vincent Van Gogh started piano lessons in 1885 in an attempt to link color with notes and chords. His teacher soon became tired of his continual comparisons and dismissed him.

Vincent Van Gogh is renowned for his exciting and masterful expressionistic use of color. Van Gogh was introduced to the Impressionists and color theory relatively late in his short life. The paintings he created before he went to Paris and saw Impressionist paintings, were dark and somber.

In the last two years of his life, Van Gogh’s work exploded with color. He did close to ninety percent of his total work during this time. He had a passion for color chords. He said “There is no blue without yellow and without orange”

Color Harmonies/ Color Chords

Let’s look at some paintings made of specific color chords. Below are famous paintings that feel very colorful yet each of these artworks limits the colors to just a few important color notes. Many of the neutrals you see are made by mixing the dominant hues. I've made a note below each one listing the colors included and what's left out of the painting.

Beginning Artists do this:

If your early experiences were anything like mine most of what you first learned about color and color mixing involved buying large quantities of paint. As a beginning artist in love with color, I was entranced by all the possible colors I could use and I put as many of them as possible into every painting. As you can imagine, my paintings often resembled a fruit salad or a circus - with all the intensely chromatic shapes competing loudly for attention. It took a long time for me to recognize that color is like music and by limiting my palette, and organizing my colors into chords my paintings are more appealing and color-filled.  

Most beginning painters see only flat local colors because they don't yet recognize how their perceptual systems influence what they see. My early color choices were based almost entirely on the local color of my subject. If a tree was brown, I painted it brown and didn’t think much more about it.

Once you understand how the mind perceives color, you can better select the “right” paint mix for everything you paint. You are probably unaware of how your mind adjusts and interprets colors for you every time the light changes. It is quite a challenge to break through this perception to view the color as it is. It helps to understand that the color you're looking at is a consequence of four color factors: 

1. The local color (or surface color) of the object.

2. The relative color of the light shining on it.

3. The relative amount of light shining on it.

4. The quality of atmosphere between the observer and the object.

You have to mentally combine all those factors to determine the actual color you want to mix for that paint stroke. 

This video does a great job explaining the very difficult subject of color perception in a very short time.

The Importance of Constraints

Constraints, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas.

Music is composed of variations on a limited series of notes and chords. Writers play with self-limiting challenges. E.V. Wright wrote the 1939 novel "Gadsby" without using the letter "e." Here's an excerpt: "Now, any author, from history's dawn, always had that most important aid to writing:—an ability to call upon any word in his dictionary in building up his story. That is, our strict laws as to word construction did not block his path. But in my story that mighty obstruction will constantly stand in my path; for many an important, common word I cannot adopt, owing to its orthography." Other examples of constrained writing are sonnets, limericks, and haiku. All thrive within strict limitations of form and meter.

More notes don't make better music and more colors don’t make a better color scheme. The opposite is usually true.

The next time you go to an art museum or attend a painting exhibition, look closely at each work and note the percentage of gray, semi-neutral, and pure-hue colors. Unless the paintings are op-art or Abstract Expressionist, most have only five to ten percent pure color. The rest of the work will be an arrangement of semi-neutral and gray colors that set off the pure hues to their best advantage. The right grays make pure-hue colors “sing”. 

Every color, including gray, varies depending on the colors next to it (see my newsletter Complements - A Love Story) Depending on how you organize your neutrals and grays, you can make the color dance throughout the painting.

Old Masters used limited palettes by default because they couldn’t get the range of pigments we have now. It was a common practice to paint the whole subject in brown or gray tones and then brush a thin film of color over it to conserve expensive pigments that they had to process by themselves. 

Mixing Colors

Most of us first learned about mixing colors by studying the color wheel. The color wheel is a circle of 12 hues derived from the pure range of colors of the light spectrum produced when light is refracted.  

On a traditional color wheel for mixing paint we have three primary hues - red, yellow, and blue. Three secondary hues are made by mixing the primaries - orange, green, and violet and the six intermediate (tertiary) hues sit between each secondary and primary hue on the wheel - red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet.

In the vocabulary of color hue is the name of the color, intensity or saturation is the amount of pigment in the color and value is the measure of lightness or darkness of the color. 

All colors have tints and shades. Tints are lighter values of colors made by adding white to oil or acrylic paint or water to watercolor paint. Shades are darker values of colors made by adding black or complements (the color on the opposite side of the color wheel) to oil or acrylic paint and by adding less water and/or complements to watercolor paint.

Neutral colors - are muddied or grayed down. Some come that way straight from the tube. Anything that contains earth minerals is usually going to be muddy, opaque, and dark. 

The intensity (saturation) of a pure color can be reduced without muddying the color by adding some complementary color to the mix.

Notice the beautiful grays produced by mixing the complementary watercolors below.

Mixing tips:

Mixing colors becomes even more important when you limit yourself to creating all the colors in your painting from just two or three hues. I am always amazed at the array of colors I can get from just blue and orange.

Squeezing paint directly from the tube and spreading it on your canvas or paper is not a great idea. To get the color you want you usually must modify it in some way, lightening it, darkening it, or adjusting its intensity (saturation). 

If a watercolor is too dark you add water, if it’s too bright you can add the complement (the color across from it on the color wheel.)

Mud is an unrelievedly dull neutral that results when you overmix three or four very different colors on your palette and apply them to dry paper or canvas with a heavy stroke. Watercolorists can avoid this by dropping the same colors onto a wet surface so more variation in color and value results. Look at the beautiful apple below - no mud there.

Getting the perfect stroke of color usually involves a lot of trial and error. However, we remember what we learn from experimentation better than reading about it or watching a video. So get out your paints, play, and discover a chord to make your own.

Color Chord #1 - Monochrome - Value priority

Your eyes are designed to prioritize value relationships. the most fundamental of which, of course, is black and white, or value. If your painting is successful in monochrome, it will be successful with more color.

Harmonious color chords all have a common color that ties them together. The easiest way to achieve color harmony is to use only one color. Risks are certainly minimized, but it can also be extremely bland. 

Another common monochrome chord is black and white plus one pure color as a shot of energy.

Color Chord #2 - Analogous - Color families

Analogous colors are wonderful for conveying mood. Any three to five colors located next to each other on the color wheel have a common color identity. When working with analogous color chords you will vary value and intensity, neutralized by its complement.  

Color Chord #3 - Warm/Cool Complements - One enhances the other

You can’t measure the temperature of a color with a thermometer. The colors of fire are generally considered warm and the colors of ice are called cool. Because complements are found on opposite sides of the color wheel one complement is always warm and the other is always cool. Complements can be coaxed into giving a wide range of color combinations found to be pleasing over the ages and amongst many people. Each complement enhances the appearance of other. (you can read my newsletter Complements - A Love Story here) 

Arthur Guptill said, "A rich effect can be obtained with only a limited palette. A warm and cool combination affords the student the best approach to his color problems, especially as they relate to outdoor sketching."

In his book on the history of watercolor painting, E. Barnard Lintott said, "For a young student there cannot be a better way of entering upon the study of watercolour than by rigorously banishing all but two colours from his palette. It is the best and surest way to the study of full colour. The colours should be a cold and warm one; cobalt blue and warm sienna—or Prussian blue and burnt sienna—are two combinations which lend themselves to a great variety of treatment."

Advanced colorists often work with multiple complementary pairs in the same painting.

Color Chord #4 - Triads - A full spectrum from three colors

Triadic Chords are composed of three basic colors - red, yellow, and blue. They could be cyan, magenta, yellow, or any other three related colors. You could use the secondaries as your primaries - orange, purple, and green. They don’t have to be colors squeezed from the tube. 

Think of your trio as three instruments in your musical ensemble- each one of these colors will go through dozens of harmonious variations throughout your picture. They will appear in light tints, warm skin tones, dark bronzy shades, and bright foliage. 

A palette of three colors can mix nearly a full spectrum of colors, and yet, remain manageable while you’re trying to wrap your head around how to mix them. 

When working in oil or acrylic your triad will include black and white as well as red, yellow, and blue.

These are my favorite watercolor triads:

  • Aureolin Yellow - Permanent Rose - Cobalt Blue - gives pure tones and vibrant color, wonderful for skin and flowers.

  • Quinacridone Gold - Alizarin Crimson - Ultramarine Blue - deep rich darks

  • New Gamboge - Vermilion - Cobalt Blue (Phtalo Blue) (UBDeep)

  • Green Gold - Quinacridone Magenta - Cerulean Blue is great for an unexpected arrangement.

  • Notice that each triad has a limitation in the range of colors you can mix, so experiment to see if the color emphasis you have in mind will work with the triad you have chosen.  You can see the difference in the available range of greens and violets in the triads below.

Sometimes I use more than one triad in a single painting to get a broader range of values and colors.

Fort Lauderdale artist, Teresa Kirk recommends using a triad of Cyan, Primary Red, and Primary Yellow when using gouache.

Florida Gold Coast Past President, Cole Wolford uses the staining watercolors Windsor Yellow, Windsor Blue, and Permanent Rose for his layered compositions.

James Gurney wrote a whole book about using triads. His favorite he calls the “iron triad” because each of the pigments contains iron oxides - Prussian blue, light red, and yellow ochre plus titanium white.

Below are other suggestions for good triadic combinations to try.

James Gurney suggests placing a triangular paper mask over a color wheel like this and rotating the triangular window around to see the color groupings change. He doesn't feel that the colors need to be equally spaced around the color wheel as suggested above.

The colors inside the triangle are called a "gamut". Each gamut suggests the feeling of walking from a room lit by incandescent light into another room lit by fluorescent light, and then stepping outside into the blue twilight. Your brain shifts from one color environment to another and still believes the full spectrum to be present.Of all the tools available to a painter, none is more exciting or evocative than color. Yet no other tool takes so much practice or is as difficult to master and truly understand. Employing a limited selection of colors in a chord for your painting will unify your work with sophistication and appeal. Color Chords are easy to mix, portable, and require fewer supplies. I love them so much I introduce them to every group I teach.

As unbelievable as it sounds, limited color chords make your work appear more colorful than those containing more colors. The limitations make the colors present more important on the stage of your painting.

Because your brain is accustomed to shifts of light as you move from one color environment to another, your brain believes the full spectrum to be present even when it is not. I suggest you review the four color factors above and notice how the local color around you changes as light and atmosphere interact with it. That's why you can use just a few colors to convey the illusion of light and shadow, mood, or suggest atmosphere or space.

If you enjoyed this article, please review my February 2021 Newsletter - Complements - A Love Story for more in-depth thoughts on color.

I hope I have inspired you to create artwork that is more unique and personal to you and given you some tips on how to use color to develop your artistic taste and style. My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to you for creating more realistic art. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

If someone shared this newsletter with you and you'd like to subscribe, please reach out to me with your email address. I promise, no spam, no overloading your inbox, just the good stuff.

 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight

Susan Convery


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