Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Color Harmony

Sunny Irises
Original oil painting  20x16"
by Susan Roux

While teaching my beginner/intermediate classes, there always comes a time when an explanation of what we're doing is necessary. With new students continually arriving, it becomes important to point out different types of painting. Most often it's the difference between arts and craft painting with fine art. Fine art is what I'm attempting to teach them. All they know is they signed up for an oil painting class...

I usually use the term Tole Painting, because most are familiar with that technique. Dip your brush in several colors at once and in one quick stroke, you have a shaded leaf or petal. I think the biggest difference with fine art is use of color. We seek color harmony. A limited palette helps. A toned canvas does too. But what if you aren't using any of those methods? 

Reference to a child's coloring book is a common one. I point out how a child will paint everything in its local color. The sun is yellow, the leaves are green and the water is blue. One of the first things I need to get my students to understand is the concept of intermingling color. If you could use each color all over your painting you would achieve color harmony. The Impressionist had that mastered.

One thing that really interests me is how color can move the eye throughout the painting. 

A painting catches a viewer. It sends their eye in a little exploration journey, hopefully throughout the entire canvas. The longer they linger, the more they'll see. At first the exploration may be about the elements in the painting. Eventually little things can travel the eye differently. As one catches onto a particular color, the eye will bounce around to all the spots with that color. If the eye focuses on darks, the eye travels throughout the painting seeking all the dark spots. The same is true for the light, shapes etc. 

Studies have shown that the eye will travel differently for each person. As an artist I like to think we have some sort of control in directing the viewer on their initial path. Beyond that, I think it's a very individualized thing. People's experiences and reactions to certain colors or subjects will effect their visual journey in a painting. Why is it that you will linger and return to a certain painting at the museum while other's can walk by it as though unaffected? There is something about your visual exploration that really grabs you. It speaks to you. It strikes you emotionally. 

Color is emotion.

Strokes can also be emotion, but color is very powerful. I wonder if we ever get to a place where we understand it fully? I'm continually amazed as I watch color interact with other colors on my canvas. Play in the paint a bit and move it around like frosting. Oh just talking about it can get my juices flowing... As colors neutralize, changes happen. It's like magic.

This painting is one I finished recently with a class. It annoyed me that the blue sky seemed isolated from the remainder of the painting. (the color appears a bit off and stark on this image) As I verbalized that, one of my students mentioned it was repeated in the irises. Somehow it wasn't enough. I found it visually disruptive. So I mixed a pale cool blue and added it to my iris leaves. Immediately I watched my color path change and saw the front foliage soften. Magic strokes. I just love that.

This is a scene from Monhegan Island. It could represent most typical New England places. Thanks for stopping by and thanks to all my wonderful students. 

How do you achieve color harmony?


  1. That's a tough one but it looks like you're pulling all that lovely work together just fine. I especially like the last piece and how you tied the color together with sky reflections on the leaves. Bravo!

  2. This is a jewel of a painting--I've looked several times.

  3. Ma chère Susan, tu sais que j'affectionne particulièrement tes paysages avec ta flore...
    Les couleurs sautillent telles des notes de musique.
    Gros bisous

  4. So lovely and so evocative, Susan. I picture the grace and beauty of a Barefoot Contessa garden luncheon. Love that one of your students pointed out what might be your issue with your sky versus iris dilemma. Sometimes just a fresh eye helps. Your words on color and your description of fine art were wonderfully enlightening to me as well!

  5. Susan, this post is right up my alley because I paint with strong color but color harmony makes or breaks a painting for me.
    Sometimes an artist uses too many colors and while each could work for that particular part of the painting, having too many color focal points is distracting and discordant.
    I also keep in mind that I should gray my colors with a bit of their compliment to get the best effect. A touch of orange in my blue sky mixture. A touch of red/violet into my green grass or tree mixture and a touch of yellow into my purples just to make them easier on the eye. The more practice and color knowledge you accumulate, the more you will understand how this works. It takes nothing away from saturated color. It just makes it less garish.

  6. Wow these irises really steal the show.

  7. Love your thoughts on color! Gets me excited to put brush to paper (or canvas)!

  8. Irises are among the most beautiful of flowers.
    I had them everywhere.
    Your painting displays them as dreamy as they are.
    To splash the sky color onto the leaves and grass does make for an emotionally charged painting.
    Very lovely Susan!

  9. How wonderful it would be to paint with you and just listen to all the quiet wisdom! I find TOLE such a handy skill to have, and use the double brush technique to paint fences, as one could do both light and dark side of wire and poles in a single stroke.

  10. great color and brushwork on the iris! Love it, would be so fun to paint together!

  11. Susan, your paintings are exquisite. I love the woman dancing...such movement and light!

  12. The composition is perfect and very beautiful colors, Susan

  13. The close up detail photos are really interesting. They're like small paintings in themselves! Beautiful work. And thank you for sharing your knowledge about painting.


Please share your thoughts. Your comments are always appreciated.