The Power of Limited Color Groups in Landscape Painting

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color-groups-palm-gardenIn 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.

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Mitchell Albala, Orcas Squall, 20 x 16, oil on panel.
Orcas Squall has two main color groups — the gray-green of the cloud and the blue of the sky — which form an analogous harmony. The darker violet-grey in the lower left occupies much less area than either the cloud or the sky, but its color is different enough that it could fairly be considered a third group.

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.

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Lisa Snow Lady, Palm Garden, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30.
Palm Garden is comprised of four color groups, distinguished from one another by value and temperature. The warm sunlit areas — the yellow-orange accents in the foreground and the light yellow of the house contrast with the darker, cooler blues and greens of the shadows. The color groups in Snow Lady’s Palm Garden also correspond to rigorously defined shapes. Unlike Orcas Squall, however, these groups are not restricted to single areas; they are interspersed throughout the canvas. The dark green palm fronds, for example, occur in every quadrant of the painting, and the colors within the blue group appear in the sky and in the shadows on the house. “I love color, but I am not tempted to add every color on my palette to a particular painting,” writes Snow Lady. “Limiting my color palette is something that comes naturally to me. I prefer to make fewer colors work harder and find the effects that are the most pleasing.”

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.

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Scott Gellatly, Desert Flora, 2015, 11 x 14.
Plein air painters, working in haste under rapidly changing light, are just as compelled to organize their colors into groups as studio painters are. Gellatly’s gestural style fills the canvas with many small strokes of color, yet those strokes are roughly organized into three color groups: the yellow-orange in the mid-ground, the pinks in the tree, and the contrasting cool and warm grays in the mountains, sky, and foreground. There are other accent colors that do not fall into any one of those color groups, such as the green touches at the very bottom or the darkest gray violet strokes. But they do not compromise the color grouping. It is the most dominant colors that form the grouping and serve as the foundation of the color composition.

Color groups are an expression of the color strategy in its most basic and obvious form.

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Michael Ferguson, Granite Lakes Trail, 33 x 24, acrylic on panel.
Ferguson’s style is a complex tapestry of broken color that adds a wonderful dimension to the color composition. Much like an Impressionist, Ferguson uses many small touches of broken color, juxtaposing cools, warms, and contrasting hues alongside one another. This diversity of color is kept under control by organizing those colored strokes into color groups of closely related values — the sky, the hill, the tree line, the snow, and so on. In this example, the swatches are extracted from the painting itself, in order to show the complex harmonies formed within each color group. In composition, shapes of varying sizes help create greater interest. A similar tenet holds true with color, as this painting demonstrates: variation in the proportions of the color groups helps keep the color composition interesting.

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John McCormick, Under the Western Sky, 2005, oil on linen, 48 x 48.
McCormick’s approach to color pays respect to the 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. The tonalist palette relies on earth colors and relatively neutral harmonies — which lend themselves to forming very limited and unified color groups. Western Sky has just three color groups: the warm light yellows of the sky; the dark siennas, browns, and greens of the foreground; and the contrasting cool accent of the blue-gray cloud, which is carried into reflection of the stream. As in Ferguson’s Granite Lakes Trail, the proportions of the color groups vary greatly, lending interest to the color composition.

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.

To find out more about the painters featured in this article, please visit:

lisasnowlady.com
johnmccormick.com
scottgellatly.com
howardmandville.com/michael-ferguson.html

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Gerald Conley on

    Mitch,
    The obvious success of limited color choices in Orcas Squall, Palm Garden and Desert Flora make your point well. In Orcas Squall, you have managed an ethereal effect (very suitable for clouds), caused in part by you analogous harmony but also with special, delicate brush work. There is something about the way you have done the blues and the gray greens that causes one to look at/search out the subtle shifts in color. The painting fosters and rewards study which I suppose is the ultimate compliment for a composition. The black sheep in this family photo is the violet gray which you acknowledge could be regarded as not of the other color groups. The other colors have an easily seen logic. This color choice is the deo ex machina solution of a master, but it balances with the dark blue sky, the two different colors but matched values effectively holding hands so that the dark corner does not fall out of the painting. The eye is further stopped by the point of greatest recession and special interest being near the bottom of the painting, up about one eighth of the painting height from the bottom, well pointed to by various other cloud shapes. This interest point is surprisingly low but is strong enough to pull the eye to that base from which to look up at the rest of the cloud. All of this very subtle work would not be noticed in a more varied-color painting.

    Palm Garden color is very limited in color choices but extremely active and well integrated with a remarkable crispness to all parts reflecting the sunny day. Lisa’s terrific color choices, in my opinion, were not obvious when she stood in front of those steps, although studying Gauguin would have helped her to at least realize there were some special dark green options. Desert Flora is a gem. My first thought was that all of the colors play lusciously together; there is no black sheep or god-out-of-a-machine drama. Then I realized the pink tree was the black sheep of his painting. I have never seen a pink or red tree in the thousands of desert miles I have traveled. My bet is Scott created the color of that tree to fit his painting, not just as a foil but also as a color that plays a critical supportive role throughout the painting. It is the sauce that makes the dish; the pink brings life to all the other color groups. (The rest of us put in the red-oxide earth so common in the deserts, I know, but not in the one he painted!)

    There is mastery expressed all over these paintings. I like the group color-limiting ideas you have described and will incorporate them. I would slit my wrist to absorb the knowledge that would provide me easier access to the non-obvious, seemingly not-logical color choices my paintings also need. But I can now see that one has to make room for those god-strokes by holding back on how many other colors they have to compete with.

  2. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Gerry, as always, for your astute comments. Which enhance the import or the article. Thanks for your keen powers of observation and I hope color grouping does make its way into your paintings! Onward!