Solutions for Colour Harmony

One essential element of painting, not often appreciated by students beginning their artistic journey, is the need for sacrifice. Nature has an abundance of contrasts of all kinds. Our eyes have been specially developed to draw these contrasts out. Due to this, the burgeoning young art student finds these contrasts attractive in the extreme and often tries to include as many as they can in their paintings. This can wreak havoc in their work as our materials are limited whereas nature is limitless. The experienced painter realises he cannot give full expression to all the qualities of nature at once. A painting that tries to be about everything ends up being about nothing. The ways painters have dealt with these limitations have varied greatly throughout art history. In this journal post we will discuss two of the main ones.

One of the profound limitations we have as painters is the dilemma of value vs. colour. The highest and lowest value pigments are profoundly grey, as in lacking chroma. In order to reach these extreme values we must add white or black to a colour. In doing this we severely diminish the chroma of our colour as we move up and down in the value scale. Adding to this, early painters only had access to low chroma pigments. This naturally led to the classical solution to this problem, that of ‘painting for value’. These early painters purposely limited their chromatic range in order to maximise the expressive range of their values, painting in single point light sources and eliminating as much ambient light as possible to maximise this range. Painting in this way maximises the sense of bulk and grounded reality. Above we see a beautiful example of this style in this wonderful academic study by Albert Edelfelt. Note the quiet colour harmonies and highly-contrasting values.

Fast forward to the 19th century and there have been many new high-chroma pigments discovered, opening the door for painters to more powerfully chromatic works. Painters also ventured outside of their studios more than before due to the invention of tubed paint. In order to capture this new world of colour that was suddenly available to them, painters came up with a new solution. They limited their value range in order to allow for brighter chromatic mixes, becoming more adventurous with their lighting setups, allowing more ambient light into their shadows and working in a higher-key value range. One such painter was Anders Zorn, as we can see from this masterful painting. Note the beautiful airy sense of light he achieves.

One group of painters who took this idea to its absolute limit was the Impressionists, going so far as to completely eliminate black from their palette and electing instead to paint with a wide array of chromatic colours to represent the different colours that make up the full spectrum of light. Painting in this way pushed these painters to employ colour at or near their maximum chroma, and the lack of black prevents access to deep darks creating much lower contrast paintings. One of the most famous of these painters was Claude Monet, as we can see from his famous series of haystacks. Note the absolute vibrancy of colours and the extreme restraint shown in the use of values. A wonderful example to us all on just how far this idea can be pushed.

by Charlie Pickard

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