“Value does the work and color gets the glory.” This statement underscores the attraction that most of us feel toward the creative expression of color that forms the nucleus of many artists’ work. Whether used subtly or boldly, the colors portrayed within the confines of a painting’s composition have to share a relationship; otherwise, they will appear artificial. The relationship, or harmony, of color is governed by the visual interaction of various colors that produces a positive aesthetic response and is influenced by outside factors such as: age, gender, personality and cultural trends.
The Science of Color Perception: There are a number of scientific principles that explain why we perceive color the way we do. Since humans are capable of perceiving more than 2.5 million different hues (Wouldn’t that be the pastel assortment to own?!), there is theoretically an infinite number of color combinations that could create a harmonious painting. Since the time of Sir Isaac Newton, physicists and artists alike have attempted to use the color wheel to create harmonious color systems (analogous, complementary and split-complementary are a few). At the core of these systems is one truth: a bit of all color is represented. If we accept that light is all color and without light nothing is perceptible, then it stands to reason that a bit of all color has to be represented for there to be color harmony.
Approaches to Color Harmony: When I say that all color has to be represented, I am not implying that you should place every color in your palette into a painting. The representation of all color needs to be done with finesse. Something should be the star in the painting’s production with other colors playing a lessor role but supporting role. I like to rely on the secondary colors of the triadic color wheel: orange, green and violet. Since each is made from the combination of two primary colors, they genetically share DNA—a sort of family bond. When placed in combination, they naturally unite and harmonize. If a primary color is too dominant in a composition, a juxtaposition of grayed color (neutrals) will help to complete the representation of all color.
A statement I first heard from master pastelist Duane Wakeham reminds me of the importance of how color is finessed: “The quality of color within a painting has little to do with the quantity of color within a painting.” If your color instincts are good, trust yourself. If not, employ one of the color systems. Who knows, some of the color’s glory might shine on you!