Monday Morning Art School: color harmony

Color harmony is not just a question of placing or finding objects that look good together; it means using those colors within your painting to build a great composition.

Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, by Carol L. Douglas
Nearly all beginning painters focus primarily on matching local color. That’s an important skill, but it is just a bare beginning. To make paintings sing, one must think carefully about color schemes. Sometimes a subject can achieve color harmony naturally, but most of the time we need to think through our color choices and placement.
In painting, local color means the natural color of an object, unmodified by lighting. Leafy trees are green, for example. But there are circumstances where they can appear black (at sunset, for example), golden or even orange. There are other circumstances in which, for compositional purposes, it is better to paint them blue or lavender. The rookie error is to persist in what we know—that trees are green—instead of what we see or would be more visually appealing.
Self portrait, by Tom Root. Courtesy of the artist.
Colin Pageis a master of color harmony; I encourage you to study his work. Above is another excellent example, a recent self-portrait by artist and teacher Tom Root. He’s a fabulous portrait painter; I’d take a workshop from him, if we ever get to take workshops again.

I could go on and on about the virtues of this painting, which are legion. For now, I’ll talk about his color use.

Isolated colors from Tom Root’s painting, above.
The background and shirt are tied together in a tight arrangement of blues and greens. The face and jacket, meanwhile, are equally tightly-grouped. Photoshop allows me to check the inverse of any color. The blue-greens and flesh tones are almost exact complements, making this a classic complementary color scheme. These complements are arranged in a pleasing, slightly asymmetrical triangle. Tom’s drawing, in a blue-violet, stands outside this color scheme, giving it great impact.
Monochrome reduction of Tom Root’s painting above.
Tom uses hue as much as value to model. (If you need a refresher on what this means, see here.) That gives his painting a solid contemporary feel. But that doesn’t mean he uses no value. In fact, if you look at the monochrome reduction of the painting, you’ll see a beautiful sweep of darks from the bottom left to the upper right. That creates contrast to drive our eye to the most important part of his painting: the face.
I didn’t ask Tom how he arrived at this color scheme; By the time you’re at his level of expertise it’s intuitive. But it doesn’t start off that way. To master color harmonies, you must spend a great deal of time thinking about color and practicing it.
All color schemes rest in the standard 12-color wheel that’s been kicking around for centuries. I’m a fan of the Quiller Wheel because it’s based on paint pigments, but you can just as easily make your own. That gives you the advantage of understanding the paints you’re actually using. (Many store-bought wheels are overloaded with useless information, making them more trouble than they’re worth.)
Tinfoil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. Remember, the color scheme shouldn’t be primarily about the objects, but about how you use the colors in your painting.
Here’s a linkthat gives you a complete description of the classic color harmonies, but let’s review them here:
These are colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel. The most famous example is Christmas’ red and green.
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.
Peppers, by Carol L. Douglas. Every once in a while I paint something very realistic, just to remind myself that I know how.
Equilateral Triad
This uses colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. The most well-known example is the primary combination of red-blue-yellow.

Harmonic triads

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.


This is a variation of complementary colors. It either substitutes for the complement or includes the complement’s adjacent hues.

Double complements

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.
As nice as that information is, color cannot be learned from reading, but only through trial and error. Your assignment this week is to set up a small still life in one of these color schemes and paint it, paying careful attention to how the lighting unifies the scene.  Remember, it’s not just a question of placing objects in a pleasing array; it’s a question of using colors within your painting to make a great composition.

Arbitrary distinctions

What is art? What is illustration? Does it matter?
Trick-or-Treat! From my brief period illustrating; prints available (DM me).
“I am trying to understand the difference between a painter and an illustrator,” writes a reader.
Paint is a just a medium. You can use it to illustrate, or you can hurl it in meaningless patterns. Conversely, you can illustrate with any two-dimensional medium, including pencils, ink, photography or cut paper. The difference is in intent.
An illustration is usually a visual accompaniment to a text. However, that’s not always true. There are illustrated books (Albrecht DĂĽrer’s Passions, for example) that do not need words at all. There are many children’s books with no words. In fact, one could argue that all of western religious art is illustration. The text (the Bible) was just not written down. Either the intended audience was illiterate or they all knew the story anyway.
Gas Station, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
Illustrators are usually hired by writers or publishers. The work is limited in scope and concrete in character. Fine artists have no middleman between them and the market. They can be as obscure as they wish. But fine artists certainly work on commission, and illustrators often work on spec, so even that distinction is hazy.
There was a time when this question mattered to me. I was trying to make the jump between graphic design and painting full time. I did it by writing and illustrating two books. We are all born with an innate ability to imagine pictures, but I’d disciplined my artistic sensibilities to be subservient to the client. It took these stories for me to loosen up and find my focus. It’s never been a problem since.
Girl in Closet, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
But there’s an insidious way in which this question is sometimes asked. What’s implied is that fine art is somehow better than other forms of artistic expression.
Yes, illustration is a fine craft rather than a fine art. Like tapestry, jewelry, carving, etc., illustration has a practical purpose aside from beauty. Paintings have none, unless you’re using them to plug holes in the wall. If you want to know if you’re an artist or craftsman, ask yourself if your finished product has any tangible purpose. If it’s useless, you’ll know you’re an artist.
The problem lies in assuming that either one is more important than the other. Our modern viewpoint comes from the 19th century Cult of Genius, which mistakenly put fine artists in the category of intellectuals instead of tradesmen.
Kitchen Table, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, plein air painting has a lowly and practical view of the world. It seeks to make pictures that make people happy.
There’s never been any distinction between fine art and illustration in terms of quality. If there ever was a gap, it was bridged long ago, starting with the unknown monks who illuminated books before the printing press was invented.
With the advent of industrialization, individuality and beauty was stripped from the objects we use every day. Brilliant craftsmen-artists like William MorrisCharles Rennie MackintoshMargaret Macdonald, and the Roycroft Movementclosed the gap between art and function once again. And who in this world would argue that N.C. Wyeth  and his peers of the Golden Age of Illustration are not among the world’s greatest artists?