Harmony in colours

Some of my favourites

Readers of this blog will notice one consistency – the limited range of colours used in each of my paintings. 3 or 4 would be the average (black and white are not counted as colours). I have elsewhere in this blog given my views on the advantages of a limited colour range for the beginner (here and elsewhere).

On the left is a colour chart made up from the colours I most frequently use. Along the top, left to right are: Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna. These are Series 1 colours and as such are the least expensive and most permanent of the ‘Artists’ grade of paints. On the left are the favourite blues, top: Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine and Prussian Blue. The top row have been dragged down and mixed with Titanium White and each blue mixed in turn with each of these mixes. Adding white is the ultimate test for the colour mixes. These colours are in the most prominent areas of the painting. Shadows are the areas you are not suppose to see very well, so they are less critical.

All the resultant mixes are beautiful shades, ranging from greens to browns, the colours most often seen in traditional landscapes. So why don’t I use all of these colours in one painting? Its because of harmony, and harmony is a subtle and often overlooked part of landscape paintings.

If you think about it, in nature the light on a particular day is influenced by many things like clouds, time of day, etc. Light striking the ground reflects back up to influence the colour of the sky, which in turn reflects back on the ground, and so it goes. This produces a uniformity of colour in a scene. The human eye and brain is programmed to spot differences in colours to distinguish objects, not sameness. This is very apparent in photography. Under tungsten lights, we see the objects as they are. If a photograph is taken, without adjusting for tungsten light, the scene in the photo has a colour cast – like shades of yellow. Our brains can automatically filter out the effect of tungsten light in the scene but does not do this when viewing the photo.

When a painting of a natural landscape is viewed, we sub-sonsciously expect the uniformity of colour found in nature. Applying an overall ‘glaze’ of transparent colour would unify the colours, but as in the photo above, we have difficulty filtering out colour casts in pictures – the scene looks peculiar. This uniformity of colour is harmony. I achieve it by having every colour I’m using, in every part of the painting. For example, if I’m using Burnt Sienna (red), Yellow Ochre (yellow) and Cobalt Blue (blue) in a painting, these 3 colours will be used in the sky and on the ground. Less Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre in the sky and more blue, and vice versa on the ground. I would not use a different blue for the sky as the one I’d use to produce greens on the ground. So the particular shades in the mixes above are not as important in a painting as the relationship between the shades. Also note, a natural landscape should have the full spectrum of colours. This means red, yellow and blue with their mixing and combining producing the visible spectrum. The individual paints used will alter and flavour this spectrum as the conditions in a landscape does. The more mixing the more uniformity, the fewer the paint colours the more vibrant the resultant mixes.

The above rant is in response to beginners in painting being taught colour using the colour wheel. This works well in digital painting where the colours are pure light on a computer screen. Paint used in painting are granules of different substances (particles of natural sand in the colours on top row above, thats why they’re inexpensive) ground in oil. Its more like threads in a tapestry of different yarns than pure colours on a computer screen or colour wheel.

To wind down and calm myself, I include an interesting extract from an old book I have, called Artists’ Pigments, their chemical and physical properties by F.W. Weber (Pub. 1924).
“A blue substance noticed in 1814 as a blue coloration, accidentally produced in the soda furnaces of St. Gobian, France, was subsequently shown to be identical to the lapis lazuli blue in chemical and physical properties.
In the year 1826 Guimet in France, discovered a method for artificially  preparing Ultramarine and was awarded 6,000 francs by the Societé d’Encouragement de France as a prize for devising a method of artificially producing ultramarine for less than 300 francs per kilogramme.…”

Oh what would the impoverished Impressionists have done, without cheap Ultramarine?