Color Harmony, Theory, and Composition in Painting Part 1

Here are the essential insights behind understanding how to get beautiful and harmonious color in a painting  based on my studies of the subject and my practical experience.

I am writing this series because I have seen much confusion on the terms and ideas related to this topic and I haven’t seen it presented clearly  in the particular systematic way which I understand it. For me there is as much value in understanding clearly what is misunderstood as possessing the knowledge itself. There are many artist teachers who grasp the concepts but do not grasp the subtly of what is being misunderstood by the student- that is a unique teaching skill. I will add to this article as time goes on.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert on this. These insights are what I have gathered and experienced and what makes sense to me at this time in the clearest way I can manage.

Color Temperature

The first step in understanding color is an understanding of what is meant by color temperature. There are two common  intentions of what is meant by color temperature:

1) Warm and cool on the wheel: For art purposes the color wheel is often divided into warm and cool halves. Warm colors are orange, yellow, and red, while cool colors are blue, and related colors. Purple can be warm when leaning towards red, or cool when leaning toward blue, green as well depends if it leans towards yellow or blue.

There is nothing inherent that says that orange is warm and blue cool, in fact the blue part of a flame is actually the hottest part- nonetheless there is an inherent accepted association of a usual general  temperature for each half of the wheel, especially because we psychologically associate red, yellow, orange with fire, and blue with water and ice.

It would take a certain level of suspension of belief to see a bonfire in a blue cast even with relatively more saturated “warmer”  blues in the warmer parts of the picture. We would not see this in real life unless we were wearing blue tinted glasses- although it would be perfectly acceptable if done consistently as we will see later.

2) Relative color temperature: In truth it is a bit more complicated. A more sophisticated definition of color  temperature with more useful application for color consistency and composition issues really has more to do with color intensity and hue shift  relative to adjacent colors and the overall light source color in the picture.  Warm really means more saturated/intense and hues tending toward the orange half compared to surrounding color or prevalent light source, and cool really means less saturated/dulled/greyed with colors leaning toward the blue half compared to surrounding color or prevalent light source.

All colors from red to blue can be warmed or cooled significantly relative to the prevalent light color and neighboring colors in the picture.

In addition our eyes fool us into “seeing” adjacent colors taking on a complimentary hue, so a grey square next to a warm color will look end up looking cooler.

There are many examples of this concept called color constancy on James Gurney’s site where you can clearly see a red square, an allegedly warm color, being cooled all the way to a perceived blue relative to adjacent color and lighting!

The Three Color Approaches

The next step in understanding color is an awareness of the 3 approaches to how we can depict color.

1) Depicting local color only. Local color is the apparent “actual” color of the subject in neutral (balanced/white) light, viewed up close. Like an overcast day when light is balanced, or under a theoretical white colorless light. For example the local color of a red apple is red, while grass is green.

2) Depicting color in context of colored light source/s. If the light illuminating the scene is not neutral (white) and leans towards warm yellow/red such a sunset sun or yellow tungsten lamp, or cool blue such as the illumination from a strong blue sky or computer screen, than that light will give a cast to the local colors that it illuminates and affect them accordingly by increasing the saturation and intensity of similar temperatures and skewing them towards the prevailing hue of the light source, while dulling and de-saturating opposing temperatures and also pulling them toward the prevailing hue.

The extent of this effect depends on the intensity of the color of the light source and how close objects are to the source. Sometimes a colored light source will just increase the intensity/saturation of local colors of the same temperature and dull the opposing temperature colors a bit, and sometimes the light source is so deeply colored and intense that it will totally overwhelm the local colors and negate them casting all in its range of a narrow gamut of filtered color.

It is also possible to have different colored light sources illuminating different parts of the scene as will be discussed later.

3) Stylistic gamut colorization. The whole scene or a chosen part is purposefully bathed in a specific limited color gamut. This does not have to  exist in the natural world or in the subject in order to be justified.  Think of it like putting on colored glasses and seeing the world through a filtered lens. It is a calculated  stylistic artistic decision to interpret a real or imagined subject within a chosen gamut of color even if the subject would have totally different local colors and light source temperatures in real life conditions. This effect can be extreme or subtle. This effect is commonly used in film and animation.

For example imagine someone in a computer lab with tons of blue screens all around and yet you choose to paint the whole picture  with an overlay of warm orange/red cast. Or you paint a picture of a bonfire surrounded by people in red robes with a deep blue cast overlay.

There are rules to how local colors are translated into the chosen gamut and allow the picture to have  internal consistency- largely  by dulling opposing temperature colors and skewing their hues towards the global color while intensifying similar temperature colors to the extent that the colors are hounded into a designated temperature/hue range. Also it is important to maintain the relative color and temperature relations throughout.

Understanding the distinction between natural light source color and  stylistic gamut colorization is important. In the stylistic gamut technique you are not required to put a strong colored light source into the scene or paint as if there is one shining from offstage, you just make a stylistic choice to overlay the scene with a specific gamut.


This is a collection of carefully selected resources from top notch artists that I highly recommend for fundamentals study:

“Alla Prima II” Book by  Richard Schmid.
“Creative Illustration” Book by Andrew Loomis.
“Light for Visual Artists” Book by Richard Yot.
“Color and Light” Book 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 Skill Share course by Denis Zilber
“Illustration Fixation” Blog by  Chris Beatrice  (Highly recommended)

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

Continue to part two: Color Consistency and Harmony

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