The Way to a Great Color Composition

The most immediately striking feature of On the Way Home on Route 62 by Sheryll Collins is its wonderfully rich color—the bright oranges of the tree are a delight for the eye. An analysis of why the color scheme works so successfully reveals how the artist followed one of the most basic principles of composing with color.

To begin, color has four basic characteristics: hue, temperature, value and saturation. Briefly, hue is the color’s identity in relation to the color spectrum. The titles blue, green, red, brown identify a color by hue. Technically, color temperature is a subset of hue but for the working artist, it’s as important as the other three. Warm colors such as reds, oranges and yellows are associated with heat while cool colors like blues and greens are associated with things that are relatively cold such as ice, snow, sky and water. Value is the lightness or darkness of a color compared to a neutral value scale from black to white with as many middle grays as can be distinguished. Saturation is the purity or intensity of the color. Paint squeezed directly from the tube is of maximum intensity.

The key concept for composing with color is what I call the “most, some and a bit” rule, which states that in a dynamically balanced color scheme most of the colors should be of the same temperature, value and intensity. In other words, most of the colors should be warm or cool, light or dark, and either bright or dull. Some of the colors, in contrast, should be the opposite of the first group. Finally, there should be a small bit of color that contrasts with all the others in as many characteristics as possible. This bit of color is sometimes called the accent or “spice” color.

On the Way Home on Route 62 is a good example of this rule in action. Most of the color in the composition (the oranges and yellows) is warm in temperature, light in value, and pure in saturation or intensity. Some of the colors (the greens and blues) are cool, dark and less intense, which make a nice contrast to the dominant warm colors. There’s a bit of dark, warm purples to set off the others. If the colors were all warm or all cool, all dark or light, or all bright or dull, or in equal amounts of each, the picture would be boring. By complying with the “most, some and a bit” rule, the painting has a satisfying color scheme.

Even so, there is some room for improvement. Almost all the bright, warm colors are in the upper half of the picture and almost all the cooler darker colors are in the bottom half. The problem is compounded by a cluster of tree branches, immediately above the fence post, thus dividing the picture into quadrants. This center of focus is too close to the exact center of the picture. A more asymmetrical division would be more pleasing. Nevertheless, the dynamically balanced colors, the variety of textures and lively brushwork make On the Way Home on Route 62 a successful watercolor painting.

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