Monday Morning Art School: color harmonies

Understanding basic color harmonies will help you integrate color in your painting.

Split the color wheel in half like this and you have your cool tones on one side, warm ones on the left.
Color is comprised of three elements: hue, value and saturation. We see value first, but our emotional response is largely dictated by hue. There are some common color schemes, or chords, found in nature and by extension, in art.
The idea isn’t to be slavishly attached to these schemes, but to use them to perceive and point up color relationships in nature.
With all color schemes, one hue should dominate. 
Complementary color scheme
These are colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel. The most famous example is Christmas’ red and green.
This is a vibrant, high-contrast scheme. It’s the basic schematic for the color of light, where shadows are always the complement of the light color. If the light is a warm gold, for example, its shadows will be cool blues.
Analogous colors
Analogous color schemes use colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors can make what might be a garish scene (a sunset, for example) more serene.
Equilateral Triad
Equilateral colors
This uses colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. The most well-known example is the primary combination of red-blue-yellow.
Triadic color harmonies can be quite vibrant, even without high-saturation colors.  
Harmonic triads
A harmonic triad counting clockwise from the green
This variation counts 3-4-5 in either direction on the color wheel. Start with a key color, and count from there. This is a sophisticated variation on the equilateral triad.

Split complementary omitting the complement of blue

This is the color scheme I go to intuitively. It’s a variation of complementary colors. It substitutes for the complement or includes the complement’s adjacent hues. It’s as visually compelling as a complementary color scheme, but allows for much more variation in the accent colors.

Split complementary including the complement of green

Double complements
A symmetrical (square) double-complement color scheme
An asymmetrical (rectangle) double-complement color scheme.

The rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. The colors can be in a rectangle or in a square.
Your assignment
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to find these color schemes in your closet, in graphic designs, and in painting. Then paint a small still life using one of the color combinations you’ve located.

Reading (and writing) a painting

A good artist, like a good writer, controls how his painting is read.

Early November: North Greenland, 1932, oil on canvas, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage

People are sometimes under the mistaken notion that I’m intellectual. In fact, my taste in books is decidedly low-brow. Luckily, there are as many different books out there as there are readers. The same is true of paintings.

Reading a painting is similar to reading a book. First, there’s an introduction. We enter every painting at some point, although the artist need not create a literal visual path in for us. It’s just as likely that there are a series of focal points that the reader notices and absorbs in order. These are supported by incidental matter that contributes tone and information. A good artist, like a good writer, doesn’t leave this to chance. It’s organized in the composition phase and then supported in the painting phase.
Whalers, c. 1845, oil on canvas, JMW Turner, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are only three intelligible passages in this painting—the whale, the whalers in their dories, and the ship. The water might as well be a wheatfield for all the information we’re given.
That requires that you, the artist, understands the basics of composition. You control the motive line of your painting. You know how to use contrast and color to encourage the viewer to read your work in a specific order. You know how to make some passages subservient to these main themes.
You must understand the focal points of your painting, either overtly or subconsciously. These are not necessarily the subject. In Rockwell Kent’s Early November: North Greenland, 1932, our eyes go first to the iceberg in the foreground. Kent has made it the most luminous, warmest part of the scene, and set it off against the briny depths. Next we look at the hillside behind, which is almost as bright as the iceberg. Only after that does our eye travel to the human activity at the bottom. Here we’re arrested by an ageless story: man wrestling against the vast power of nature for his very survival. We spend a long time looking at these tiny fishermen, which we wouldn’t have done had they been what we noticed first.
The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, oil on wood panel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts. As with the gospels, all the action is in the most inconspicuous corner.
Kent has borrowed a technique first used by Pieter Bruegel the Elder four hundred years earlier. In his Census at Bethlehem, all the bustle and contrast of the midfield drive our eyes down to the least important part of the painting, the corner. There the scene is laid for the birth of Christ. Just as in the Bible story, this great event happens in an unimportant place.
We know that because we’re bringing our own understanding to the painting. In both literature and painting, prior knowledge plays a profound role in how we read the work. There are symbols we must decode, and experiences we relate to. The thematic thread tying together the three paintings above is the insignificance of man. Every one of us has felt that some time. That feeling transcends the specific narrative.
The Charioteer of Delphi, 478 or 474 BC, courtesy Delphi Museum. We may know nothing of this young man, but his beauty and concentration speak through the ages.
Some of the great art of the past has lost its narrative power today. We don’t know enough Greek mythology or Bible to fully decode them. But the greatest still have the power to transport us. They touch a common chord of experience and emotion.
In our digital culture, we don’t often take time to read artwork quietly. But that’s in the shopping phase. In the end, paintings will go home with someone, to be seen over long periods of time. To survive, they must have some story to tell, some depth of meaning, or they will be relegated to the attic. The work that compels the most on Instagram may be, sadly, the least successful in real life.

Global art

Trade has been with us for longer than we have written records. We trace it through art and craft.

The Meagre Company, 1633-37, Frans Hals and Pieter Codde. Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. One of the most important Asian imports to Europe was silk.
We think of global trade as a modern phenomenon, but trade has been part of human civilization since long before there were written records. Artwork is a primary tool for tracking that.
Glass beads were a high-status item in the late Bronze Age. Their manufacture was restricted to Egypt and Mesopotamia and traded as finished goods. By 1300 BC, raw glass itself was in international trade. The oldest glass ingots on trade routes were found in a 1300 BC shipwreck off the coast of Turkey.
The Riace Warriors, Greek, c. 460-50 BC, discovered in the sea off Calabria, Italy
Egypt didn’t invent this process, but it controlled it. All three ancient-world glass furnaces for raw ingot manufacture were in Egypt. This is where cobalt Egyptian blue glass and copper-based red glasses were first made. The Amarna Letters (c. 1350 BC) detail the military and other relationships between Egypt and its vassal states in Syro-Palestine; they contain frequent requests for glass. Glass beads were nearly as precious as gold and silver.
13th Century Statue of Saint Maurice, Magdeburg Cathedral. Maurice was the leader of a legion of “six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men” who converted en masse to Christianity and were martyred together. By the time this was made, there was enough European trade with Africa that the unknown artisan could represent African features.
By the eighth century BC, the Greeks and Etruscans were part of an active trade network around the Aegean and Mediterranean. One side effect was the Orientalizing of Greek art. Massive imports of raw materials and an influx of foreign craftsmen introduced new skills into Greece. Its influence was felt in Italy, Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula. This trade network expanded to include the entire Mediterranean. Greek pottery has been found in Marseilles and Carthage to the west, Crete to the south and Sardis to the East.
Saint Jerome in his Study, 1480, fresco, Domenico Ghirlandaio, courtesy chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence.
The Roman Empire was built upon trade. No tariffs, a common currency, and secured trade routes led to world domination. They imported raw materials from as far as Britain to the west, Asia (along the Silk Road) to the east, and from Germanic and Slavic tribes far outside the empire. In return they exported Roman culture. Today we find Roman ruins, roads, coins, and mosaics across Europe.
When the Roman Empire was snuffed out, so were their trade networks. Trade was controlled by the Caliphates until the Renaissance. This brought middle eastern art into Iberia, but cut Europeans off from Asia and Africa. These networks weren’t restored until the Age of Sail.
A fifteenth-century painting by Domenico Ghirlandaioof St. Jerome is a map of contemporary global trade. The oriental carpet, glazed albarelli (drug jars) and crystal vases were all trade goods at the time. Note his spectacles, invented in Florence in the 13th century.
Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, distemper on linen, Andrea Mantegna, courtesy of the Getty.
In Giovanni Bellini’s The Feast of the Gods, there is blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, painted from the family collection of the patron, the Duke of Ferrara. Porcelain from the same collection is visible in Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, c 1500. The reservation of porcelain to gods and princes tells us just how precious it was.

In 1603, the Dutch seized a Portuguese carrack off the coast of Singapore. Its manifest is a record of the goods then being traded with Asia: 1,200 bales of raw silk, many chests of damasks and embroideries, innumerable sacks of spices and sugar, and 60 tons of porcelain.
The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 1599, oil on canvas, Hendrik Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
By the 16th century, the Netherlands was the center of free trade, which now ranged across the world. This can be seen in images of the boats they used, and the goods they brought home, including silk, spices, sugar and fruits.