Color Harmony, Theory, and Composition in Painting – Part 3 “The 5 Essential Color Ingredients for Painting”

The 5 Essential Color Ingredients for Painting

Good color composition works on both a natural plausibility, and a compositional likeability level. . Here are several essential ingredients that acknowledge those requirements.

• Limitation/Unification A compositional likeability issue most crucial and commonly ignored by beginners. If there are many opposing colors of equal intensity and size in the picture you are risking a color cacophony, even if you have created a natural plausibility scheme that justifies it from a realism perspective (i.e. random collection of multi colored objects of equal size and intensity in neutral/balanced light).

 An artists job is not to record reality, or to recreate it slavishly, but rather to create a purposeful picture.

You can achieve limitation by arranging the composition with subjects of limited local color or painting them as if they had similar local colors even if they don’t (in neutral or balanced light), unifying with a stylistic global gamut, or unifying with colored light sources,  and as always purposefully exaggerating or lessening the unifying effect of these strategies when beneficial.

Natural/Internal Plausibility  Another source of common error. Whatever “compositional/aesthetic likability” issues you are trying to achieve must work within the confines of natural or internal plausibility.

It would be great to put a deeply saturated intense cool blue object in middle of a warm intensely yellow orange lit room from an aesthetic  perspective in order to get a strong complimentary contrast, but how do you justify it unless you add a second cool light source? There is no lighting situation that would create that situation. Even if you are doing a gamut stylistic approach you also must be careful to maintain internal consistency.

It is also important to be consistent with other physical rules of color and light such as shadows being lower saturation and also keeping mind that saturation lowers in strong (especially over exposed) direct light – so light intensity will also affect your ability to showcase pure highly saturated color.  That is why artist like Richard Schmidt prefer ambient soft balanced/neutral light that allow colors to appear at full purity and intensity.

• Variation This is both a compositional and plausibility issue because it increases the aesthetic beauty of color and it is actually that way in nature to some extent as the hue shifts toward the hue/temperature of the light source as it nears light source. (Although artists exaggerate that effect, rightfully, for aesthetic purposes.)

Variation means that in order to paint with dynamic color  it is important to avoid flat dead areas of hue and instead think of it as painting with temperature families. You are not painting cool green grass, instead think of it as painting the passage with the cool green family which include cool blue and purple even cooled greyed red, although the overall passage statement will still read green.

As mentioned because it looks better many artist take the liberty of exaggerating the variation found in natural light settings- this is perfectly fine and desirable. Viewers will give you room to exaggerate pretty far without offensively violating the natural plausibility.

It is important to realize that variation is very helpful in the low saturated more greyed areas of the painting as well. This creates sophisticated low saturation passages. Shadows which are physically usually less saturated than light areas also benefit from subtle variation.

Another part of color variation is also the idea of generally avoiding pure highly saturated primary colors as the overall colors and instead use hue shifted versions of them, or use mid and low saturation tints shades and reserve the pure high saturation for accents and emphasis.

• Contrast and Focalization Too much of the same color family risks being boring. This might seem to go against unification/limitation strategy, however the trick is to get a calculated interesting balance.

Contrasting warm and cool whenever possible, or at least levels of intensity, adds much visual enjoyment to color. The easiest most powerful way to do so is with two opposing light sources.

One challenge mentioned before is when you are dealing with a strong single light source or strongly tinted gamut overlay.  How do you create realistic or internally consistent opportunities for color contrast? One approach is to reserve specific accent/focal areas of the picture for super pure saturated passages from that same family. This can be the light source, the area near the light source, or an object with intense local color.

• Exaggeration As mentioned it is crucial to realize that an artist is not a reality replicator, rather a creator of an artistic reality. You have the license to exaggerate the color variation and every aspect of color as long as you still keep somewhat within the framework of natural/internal plausibility.

For example you may not see such intense cool blue shadow passages in nature before you, they may be more subtle, but you can still intensify them in your painting. Nature is often more subtle but that doesn’t work in paint. Nature has the advantage of encompassing actual varying light sources, not a paper or screen, so we must be clever and compensate. That is fine and desired.  This works both ways, sometimes increasing the intensity, and sometimes lessening it.

Another example is that you may not find in nature that a single colored light source really has the all enveloping ambient strength the way it was depicted in a painting for unification purposes. Again fine and desired. You may also not find the extent of rich color variation within the color family passages as artists tend to exaggerate.


“Alla Prima II” by  Richard Schmid.
“Creative Illustration” by Andrew Loomis.
“Light for Visual Artists” by Richard Yot.
“Color and Light” by James Gurney, as well as Gurney Journey- the blog.
Stapletonkearns”  Blog by Stapleton Kearns.
“How to use color” Online course by Will Terry at Folio online Academy.
“Becoming a Better Artist” Online course by Robert Chang. (Excellent online fundamentals course.)
” Illustrate Color & Light” Online SkillShare course by Denis Zilber
“Illustration Fixation” Blog by  Chris Beatrice

Please feel free to comment if you have any insight or worthy links on this topic.

Continue to part 4:  Common Color Recipes

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