In the realm of color, more is not necessarily better. We can produce stronger and more harmonious paintings if we learn how to limit our color choices. Works by Albala, Snow Lady, Gellatly, Ferguson, and McCormick show how this is done with limited color groups.
Landscape painters are explorers. We thrive on making discoveries. This is especially true in the realm of color, where possible color combinations and mixtures are nearly infinite. One of the paradoxes of the artistic practice, however, is that using fewer options often leads to better results. For example, we use limited values to help identify shapes and value relationships. And in composition, we impose a limited focus when we crop our subjects. If we limit our color choices as well, we can produce stronger and more harmonious paintings.
Because color can elicit such an emotional response, it can be tempting to infuse our landscapes with a wide array of hues from every part of the spectrum. But even the novice painter will recognize that a workable color plan cannot include every color. Such an approach might initially stimulate viewers, but it does not form a coherent strategy that will endure after the excitement has worn off. As Sir Kenneth Clark said, “All color is no color.” Instead, we can bring greater color harmony and focus to our work if colors are limited and organized into just a few color groups.
Defining the color group
A color group is made up of individual colors that are related in hue and value. For example, in Orcas Squall (below) there are two main color groups — the gray-greens of the cloud and the blues of the sky. There are several “individual” colors within each group, of varying temperature and value, but because those colors are closely related, they fit neatly into their respective groups. Color grouping encourages us to think about the main colors that form our color composition. When the painting is organized around just a few color groups, the color composition makes a clearer and more direct statement.
The obvious question is, how many color groups should there be? The paintings featured in this article have between two and four color groups. This may sound rather restrictive — yet none of these paintings appear stunted in color or diminished in any way. Quite the contrary. Only the color groups are few in number, not the individual colors. Could there be more than four color groups? Yes, but keep in mind that color groups are about organizing and simplifying the color composition so that the overall impression is more direct. The more color groups you add, the more complex and hard to manage the color composition becomes.
Only the color groups are few in number, not the individual colors.
Fast friends: color grouping and color strategies
Color grouping and color strategies go hand in hand. A color strategy is a set of color relationships that have been shown to work well together and can be used as a formula achieving the effects the landscape painter is after. For instance, you might use a strategy like analogous harmony to enhance the illusion of unified light, as in Orcas Squall; or a complementary or split-complementary relationship to enhance the contrast between certain colors, as in Palm Garden and Granite Lakes Trail (below). Color groups are an expression of the color strategy in its most basic and obvious form. Color grouping can direct our eye to the essential colors that form our strategy.
Color grouping is not a complicated or abstruse theory. Once you begin looking at landscape paintings with an eye toward grouping, you will see that color groups are used all the time. Any landscape painter who is sensitive to color harmony and unified light — whether thinking formally in terms of color grouping or not — will instinctively look for ways to bring greater organization and unity to the myriad and sometimes disparate colors nature presents.
Color groups are an expression of the color strategy in its most basic and obvious form.
Any landscape painter who is sensitive to color harmony and unified light will instinctively look for ways to bring greater organization and unity to the myriad and sometimes disparate colors nature presents.
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