Color Harmony, Theory, and Composition in Painting- Part 2 “Color Consistency and Harmony”

Color Consistency and Harmony

When approaching color harmony it is important to understand that there are two separate intentions which can be confused.

1) Physical Plausibility. One intention of color harmony means that the colors in the picture are consistent from a physics perspective with the color and temperature  of the lighting conditions, or in the case of stylistic coloring that there is internal consistency to the system.

2) Compositional and Aesthetic Likability. A second intention is that the colors harmonize on a compositional/aesthetic level regardless of the light source, relating well to each other and to the picture as a whole on a local color level.

For example you might be able to create a plausible picture from a physics light source perspective where there are random assortment of opposing intense hues that are given equal competing space, such as in neutral light. However, this might be unwise from a compositional/aesthetic  perspective, similar to dressing up in the morning with every article of clothing a different random strong color.

Another point is that certain color combinations may be considered pleasant, interesting, psychologically or socially meaningful, or impactful on a color level and you may want to find ways therefore of composing them and justifying them from the natural plausibility perspective so you have the best of both worlds.

Understanding color harmony depends on which definition you are dealing with and which type of the above scenario/variables you are talking about.

• Consistency and harmony with local color in neutral/balanced light. In this scenario objects retain their natural local colors and will just darken (blacken) in the shadow areas as well as lose some saturation (grey down.) In the light areas all colors will have their “local” levels of hue and saturation. An example of this painting a colorful garden with a white overcast sky. Each flower will show its true local hue and saturation.

In regards to “natural plausibility” harmony in neutral light color choices will depend on consistency with “real” life natural colors more than anything else. If you decide to depict an apple as purple, or a Coke can as green in a neutral light setting it will look odd if you are presenting it as a realistic depiction. There is no natural explanation for a coke bottle to appear purple in neutral light without a tinted lens at a close distance.

In regards to “compositional likeability” you may be more challenged in your ability to plausibly unify the color of the composition with an overall lighting or stylistic cast because the light has no color or is only very weakly leaning in one direction. Local color choices become more important. You may choose to purposefully compose the setting/objects in the  picture and dress the subjects in local colors that will be relate in calculated ways such as grouping a still life of objects of analogous  colors (banana, red apple and orange on brown tablecloth in neutral light)  or two local complimentary colors. Color composition in this case is similar to graphics or fashion in terms of which colors relate intelligently and work well together on a local level.

• Consistency and harmony with colored light sources. When dealing with a strongly colored light source (which is the most common scenario as most light has a leaning toward a temperature/hue,) there are important considerations for “natural plausibility” and color consistency.

In regards to natural plausibility; colors of similar hue/temperature range facing the light directly or indirectly will generally increase in saturation and shift toward the light’s hue, while colors of opposite hue/temperature will do the opposite and lose  saturation/intensity becoming greyed down, especially the compliment of the predominant key color. This effect can be very subtle or pronounced depending on the intensity and size of the light source and the closeness and directness of the objects to the source. It is important to keep in mind that an artist can and often do choose to exaggerate this effect for artistic purposes.

For example it is perfectly possible to have a harmonies naturally plausible color composition with objects of varied colors such as a boy with a blue coat setting a red kitchen with bowls of all different types of hues on the table. What would happen if there was a single warm yellow/orange tungsten light is that all the red/orange/yellow objects would get more saturated and yellow while the greens would yellow and the blue/bluish purples would dull somewhat and de-saturate- this would give a realistic depiction of the scene.

(One unusual technical  exception is light which is colored on a very narrow frequency like a red only light or looking at light through a red lens which would actually make red objects lit up by it appear white while green would appear black)

A general rule to create natural plausibility in a single colored light source is to recognize its color and mute its compliment somewhat, not showing it at full saturation and purity.

One important point regarding natural plausibility and colored light. There is an idea called “chromatic adaptation,” this means that our brains adapt when our environment is bathed in a consistent colored light and we interpret it and see it as closer to  neutral light instead. A good example of this is sitting in a room at night with a tungsten strong yellow light source. If you viewed  the room at night through the window from outdoors it would appear to be filled with yellow/orange, yet from inside you are unaware of the strong color and it seems closer to neutral, like a fish unaware of the water around him. This is something to consider when painting strong ambient colored light sources in a realistic style. If it is the type of light source that usually is viewed with chromatic adaptation and you are painting it from that perspective (inside the room rather than looking at it from the outside) it will feel more naturally plausible to depict it closer to neutral light or only a slight color cast, rather than the intensity of color that it “really” has.

In regards to “aesthetic likeability,”  on one hand a strong colored light will automatically unify the composition towards a limited gamut taking care of the random competing strong hues problem, on the other hand it would seem to make a strong complimentary color scheme  more challenging. By definition the scheme should seem to  skew toward  analogous because all is bathed in the same colored light and the opposing complimentary colors are therefore dulled.  You don’t get the full pleasure of seeing two full strong opposites interact.

One approach to this is understanding that even with a single colored light source the coloring and temperature of the source may be subtle and not overwhelming leaving plenty of room for all colors to show the diversity of their  local hues and saturation to a significant extent while still retaining the uniting tint of the light source.

You can easily create a subject that has a complimentary pair of colors, or even widely varied hues, and there would be “natural plausible” as long as consistency with the subtle light source was maintained throughout the picture. You don’t have to have total extreme contrast of fully saturated temperatures to enjoy the play of warm vs cool- even a slightly dulled contrasting temperature will still work significantly.

However it is true that in heavy ambient single colored lighting by default you would be headed toward an analogous scheme.

Another solution to creating contrast even in heavy ambient single colored lighting is drastically increasing the intensity/saturation of specific chosen focal areas of the picture later although all is still in the same hue/temperature family, as will be discussed later.

Yet another very powerful approach to opening up color possibilities with colored light source is to create multiple light sources in the picture. Two light sources of opposing temperatures are the most powerful way of showing complimentary color harmony. Complimentary colors in neutral light or a single light will not have near as powerful an effect.  There are many ways to cleverly come up with an excuse to insert a secondary opposing temperature light source in your composition. Doing this will open up the most  powerful opportunity for striking complimentary color contrasts. More on this later.

• Consistency and harmony with Gamut stylistic colorization. Gamut stylistic colorization has very different considerations than the other two approaches.

In regards to “natural plausibility” the main issue ironically is to clarify to the viewer  that you are not using a standard realistic natural light system but rather the natural equivalent of putting a colored tinted lens over your eyes or the picture. This is accomplished by internal consistency. It is like creating a shorthand that groups different temperatures and hues into limited expressions but that system must be consistent in temperature relativity throughout the picture.

An extreme of this approach is  totally graphic/stylistic, for example arbitrarily casting the upper half of a picture under an orange hue overlay and the bottom half  under a blue overlay with no colored light sources or even different sections of the picture under different tints perhaps in a pattern which is overtly stylistic and has almost no realistic natural equivalent.

In regards to “compositional likeability,” this method opens unusual options. In this approach you are starting with choosing the  colors themselves regardless of lighting conditions.  You can seemingly pick any combination of complimentary or analogous color  and they would still harmonize aesthetically because they would related in the sense that other colors are excluded and the same limited colors run through the scene.

However in this case as well you would probably not get the same effect as two contrasting light sources where the complimentary contrast happens at full saturation. Even in the gamut method there is usually a prevailing temperature/hue and the other extremes are muted.

“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 Skill Share 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 3: The 5 Essential Color Ingredients

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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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Spotlight 10 Chanukah Play Picture

spotlight cover 10“What’s wrong” version. Note the Mabbacees.funny

Effie:color yoel


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Spotlight Magazine Issue 9

Spotlight magazine cover

effie issue 9h

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