Landscape Color Strategies: Part 3 – The Harmony of Neutrals


Veil Falls, oil on canvas, 30 x 30. Sold.In this third and final installment in the Color Strategies series, I demonstrate that a neutral palette, with its ability to unify disparate colours, can be considered a color strategy in its own right.

In Parts 1 and 2 we saw that the use of a structured colour plan or strategy could help build greater colour harmony and suggest a unified light. We find that analogous colours, because they are so closely allied on the colour wheel, form very close-knit harmonies. With complementary colours, we find harmony through opposition (radiant complements) and harmony through their mixture, which form neutrals. In this final article, we will look more closely at neutral colours and see how they may be considered a colour strategy in their own right.

If we asked several painters to name a few colour strategies, they might say triadic, complementary, split-complementary, or analogous. But it is unlikely they would name “neutral” as a strategy. However, the paintings featured in this article will demonstrate that, when paintings are composed primarily of neutral tones, a relatedness among the colours is formed. And, as we have seen throughout this series, where we find relatedness among colours, we find harmony.

Don’t underestimate the power of neutral colors. Although neutrals don’t shout as loudly as bright colours do — they prefer to whisper — they are just as capable of expressing effective colour relationships.

A Unity Among Neutrals

Any individual colour or mixture has a relative intensity, ranging from very bright and intense to very dull and neutral. Strictly defined, “neutral” means the absence of colour. In the context of this article, however, I use the word neutral more generally to mean any colour that is less than fully saturated. Only an absolute neutral would have no colour bias at all; it would be a perfect gray. The key point for the neutral strategy is this: as colours become increasingly neutral they begin to harmonize through a common association to that absolute neutral baseline. Thus, colours that might be dissimilar or discordant in a more saturated colour field are “calmed” down and better able to agree with each other when they are neutralized.


This is demonstrated in these three colour swatches. Each pair is comprised of the same two hues — red-violet and green. In the top pair, the colours are pure and saturated. They have little in common and do not form a particularly unified pairing. They even vibrate a bit from some complementary action. In the second row, the colours are more desaturated and seem to contrast less. In the third row, the colours are very desaturated and only retain a hint of their original hue — yet are considerably more harmonious and unified than the saturated pair.

Because we have such a positive emotional response to colour, there is a bias toward brighter, more saturated colour. As a result, the neutral strategy is often under-appreciated. The five contemporary landscape painters featured here show that paintings employing the neutral strategy possess emotional depth and a contemplative quality. We will also see that the neutral strategy does not mean the absence of colour. Although neutrals don’t shout as loudly as bright colours do — they prefer to whisper — they are just as capable of expressing effective colour relationships.


Mitchell Albala, Veil Falls, oil on canvas, 30 x 30.

Veil Falls achieves a unity of color through a common association to an absolute “no color” gray. The color map for the painting shows 25 representative colors from the painting. There are subtle cool and warm shifts, and hue shifts toward blue or green, yet all are unified by a common association to the neutral gray.


Kurt Solmssen, Snow on 7th Street, 2011, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches.

Solmssen typically works with much brighter colours than we see in Snow on 7th Street. But neutral colours are a fitting choice for this wintery scene. The colour swatches isolate nine representative colours from the major areas of the painting. Although the colours are significantly desaturated, we can see that a neutral-based strategy does not mean the absence of colour, but more subtle color. Solmssen strikes a clear temperature shift between the lights and darks: the lightest values in the snow and sky, along with the terra cotta-coloured houses, are warm, while the distant shore and large tree are relatively cooler. In the “gray” water there is a delicate commingling of the pale blue and pale orange. In a painting that is built on a neutral strategy, the painter may use more neutral pigments.


Renato Muccillo, The Upward Push, 2010, oil on panel, 38 x 28 inches.

Muccillo is one of many painters working in the contemporary tonalist tradition, a style that emerged with the painters of the Hudson River School, who used a blanket of tone to suggest colored atmosphere or mist. Tonalist painters rarely dip into highly saturated colours; instead, their palettes are laden with earth tones and subdued mixtures that help establish a harmony of neutrals. This neutral tonality, in combination with strong value contrasts, helps convey the deep sense of mood these paintings are known for. Remarkably, in The Upward Push, Muccillo uses just five colours — titanium white, ivory black, transparent earth yellow, viridian green, and dioxazine purple. Such a restricted set of pigments — a limited palette — helps ensure that colour mixtures remain simple and more closely related. As Solmssen does in Snow on 7th Street, Muccillo pays close attention to temperature differences — a largely cool sky poised over a largely warm ground.


Andrzej Skorut, Last Light on the River, 2008, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches.

Skorut also works in the contemporary tonalist tradition. His palette includes many earth tones — pigments like burnt umber, yellow ochre, Naples yellow, and raw sienna. In this piece, however, he expands beyond the earth tones to include more saturated colours in the sky. This demonstrates a very important lesson: a neutral harmony does not prohibit the use of more saturated colours. In fact, when poised against neutral colours, brighter areas of colour will appear much stronger, and neutral areas much more neutral.

T. Allen Lawson, South Thomaston Church, 2007, oil on linen, 32 x 26.

Painter T. Allen Lawson builds harmony in many of his paintings with a delicate orchestration of neutral hues. In South Thomaston Church, we observe a very unified color-light and a very obvious atmosphere. There are subtle temperature shifts everywhere, such as between the light warm blue of the foreground snow and the pale light yellow of the church. That these colors are fairly neutral help them relate in a way that suggests a uniform light. The sense of atmosphere is also heightened by a limited range of values.

Find out more about the artist featured in this article:

T. Allen Lawson:
Kurt Solmssen:
Renato Muccillo:
Andrzej Skorut:

Additional Resources

Landscape Color Strategies: Part 1 – The Harmony of Analogy

Landscape Color Strategies: Part 2 – The Harmony of Complements

Neutrals: Selecting the Right Neutral Pigment for Your Palette

The “Expanded Primaries” Palette — Thinking About Cool and Warm




About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with over 35,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

1 Comment

  1. I have a great Russell Chatham book I refer to often for his subtle and neutral colors. He also has a texture to his work I am still trying to capture.
    The three color palette exercises you recommend [from the class Essentials of Plein Air Painting in Seattle] also helps keep the colors related and more neutral than using a full range of colors, because a little of each color usually makes it into the blends. Fewer paint tubes also makes it easier to take my painting supplies in carry-on for flights, since I can fit four or five 1.25 oz. tubes into the little plastic baggies we must use for screening.