In the first of three articles about color strategies, I explore the most basic “color wheel” strategy, analogous harmony, and its innate ability to unify colors. Parts 2 and 3 will cover complementary colors and neutral colors, respectively.
Harmony. All painters strive for it — the unmistakeable sense that all the colors within the painting cohere and work well together. Harmony is typically defined as a “pleasing arrangement of colors forming a consistent whole.” That definition is only qualitative, however; it tells us something about our destination, but very little about how to get there. How does an artist actually arrive at “pleasing”?
Reality always presents itself in complete harmony. When we look at nature we never say, That just doesn’t look harmonious! Because natural light is real, it never fails to be convincing. But for artists who paint not with sunlight, but pigments on canvas, harmony doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through the use of a structured color plan or strategy.
A strategy is like a recipe for harmony — a set of color relationships that are proven to work well and can be used as a formula for building our color composition. Like the musician who composes in a particular key, in order to maintain certain types of harmonic relationships, the colorist relies on a strategy to maintain a cohesive relationship among the colors. Which hues will be used? How will they relate? Which will dominate and which will be subordinate? What mood will they conjure? These are the questions a color strategy addresses. Some painters report that they follow a more intuitive approach and do not use a color strategy. That may be true, but in the end, if the painting is harmonious and successful, we will be able to find a strategy at work, whether it came about intuitively or by design.
There are many types of color strategies — complementary, split-complementary, neutral, or triadic, for example — which I call “color wheel” strategies, since we can easily map them on the color wheel. Each one establishes its own type of harmony and it’s the painter’s job to determine is one of those may suit his goals for that painting. As we will see, a single strategy doesn’t necessarily work alone; it often combines with other strategies in surprising ways.
Because natural light is real, it never fails to be convincing. But for artists who paint not with sunlight, but pigments on canvas, harmony doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through the use of a structured color plan or strategy.
One of the reasons color strategies are so effective at creating harmony is because they restrict the number of color groups. A smart color solution is never about an excess of divergent colors. When a painting is organized around a few well coordinated groups — distinct from one another, yet related in specific ways — the overall color plan is simpler. Colors are able to integrate with one another more organically. (Also see The Power of Limited Color Groups in Landscape Painting.)
The Power of Analogy
Analogous colors are those that are most closely allied on the color wheel. The swatches shown here feature a string of five hues from the wheel. The first two, yellow and yellow-orange, are adjacent to each other and therefore considered analogous. They have similar wavelengths which make them as closely related as any two colors can be. That familial bond makes them extremely harmonious. Two adjacent colors like this form a narrow or “tight” analogy, but the analogous relationship can be expanded to include additional hues. By adding orange and and red-orange, we produce four colors that maintain an analogy. The common ingredient in all four colors is yellow. However, if we were to expand the string to yet another adjacent color — red — then the range is flanked on either end by primaries, yellow and red, which are too far apart to be considered analogous.
For landscape painters, the innate ability of analogous colors to create deeply harmonious relationships makes them an ideal strategy for simulating the illusion of unified light and color. Depending on the time of day and the amount of moisture and dust in the air, atmosphere will reflect certain colors (as we readily see at sunset), which tinge the color of all landscape elements that are enveloped by it. Disparate colors are brought into harmony. In other words, what atmosphere achieves naturally, the painter can simulate with pigment through the use of analogous harmony.
Like all color strategies, analogous harmony is flexible. This article explores several approaches to this strategy: one that uses a strict analogy and three that find ways to add subtle contrast to the analogy or combine it with other strategies.
The mood and densely colored light in Snowy Ridge is achieved through a three-color analogy, ranging from yellow-green to green and slightly into blue-green. In this recipe, yellow is the common ingredient shared by all the colors in the analogy. Snowy Ridge employs a “strict” analogy. It uses only analogous colors and never reaches for colors outside the analogy. The more strict the analogy, the more atmospheric and densely colored the light in the painting will appear.
Analogy with Supporting Hues
If analogous harmony is so effective at suggesting a unified light, why aren’t more landscape paintings strictly analogous? Many painters find strict analogy to be too limiting. They rightly look for ways to enliven the color field with contrasting or complementary hues that are outside the analogy. In Gateway to Zion the dominant color group is clearly the red and red-violet of the rocks. The second largest color group is the sky, which forms an analogy with the rocks through its light orange warmth. Then two smaller areas of color are introduced — the pale blue in the upper sky and in the notch between the two rocks, and the warm green in the foreground brush. Overall, the analogous palette is subtly enlivened by the addition of these two “outsider” colors, but because they are used in subordinate ways, the red-violet analogy remains dominant and does the greatest amount of work to harmonize the painting.
Analogy with Subordinate Complement
Western Wall 1, with its brilliant red-orange, is a beautiful example of the power of analogy, augmented with a subordinate, contrasting color. The turquoise accent in the sky is a delightful relief from what would otherwise be an all-red painting. That small spot of color makes an already exciting painting even more interesting. Would it be fair to say that the painting uses a complementary strategy? Yes. Western Wall combines two strategies — analogous and complementary. Because the complement is used in a subordinate way, analogous harmony remains the dominant or “ruling” strategy.
Supporting Colors Tinged by Analogy
An Evening Tide demonstrates yet another way to add color variation to a painting while maintaining an overall analogous harmony. The overall color impression of An Evening Tide is that of a pale orange-pink light. Yet, when we look closely, we see subtle touches of colors from nearly every family — yellow in the clouds, violet along the horizon, greens atop the waves, and many blues along the beach and in the water —yet each is tinged by the dominant orange-pink, which controls the color of the light. This type of color variation is somewhat different from what we see in Lamb’s Gateway to Zion. In that piece, the contrasting colors are more distinct and localized. In An Evening Tide every color is influenced by the global effect of the dominant hue, much as colored light will tinge everything it touches. Of the several analogous approaches shown, this is arguably the subtlest and most complex.
Find out more about the painters featured in this article: