Painting with Color Scales
by Joey Howell (c) 2007
One way I narrow the choice down is simply to decide whether my painting will be warm or cool. A southwest desert landscape at midday will probably make me think of a warm or hot color, like yellow-orange; if I were painting a human figure and wanted to convey a down or depressed feeling, I might choose (…wait for it…) blue.
Sometimes I already have a musical sound in mind, with its own scale, or more correctly, its own mode (see below). If I have a particular mode in mind and one or more colors that I want to include, then the mental exercise of finding a color-mode satisfying all the requirements can be quite challenging. For example, say I want a major color scale with both red and red-violet in it. Well, there are only two choices: red major and blue-green major.
Sometimes the answer to the question, “What key should I use?” is rather less analytic and more subjective. You choose the key that you like at that particular moment, for whatever particular reason you have. Sure, I let my brain do a little work on the problem, because that’s fun and can be helpful, but sometimes, in the end, it’s my heart, or my gut, that decides, or some other internal “craving” for one color or another.
How do you actually use a color-scale in a painting? Here is an easy example. Without thinking about it too much, I choose a color. Say, blue-green. This is my root color. Now I write down the colors of the blue-green major scale using the formula above: blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red, orange, yellow, green. Then I create a 4-color chord, á la the description of triads above, except extended by one note. The resulting chord is blue-green, red-violet, orange, green. Borrowing from music nomenclature, I name this chord Blue-green Major7. Now I can create an abstract painting depicting this color-chord. I take each color of chord in turn and apply it to the canvas, a splash of thin wash here, a bold slash there, generally letting the each color dry before applying the next color. I try to emphasize the root color, blue-green in this case, perhaps by using large blotches of saturated color. At the same time, I try to balance all the colors, just as I would try to balance the notes of a guitar chord, so each is distinct, but not overpowering. Sometimes it takes a few rounds of applying the colors, but the result can be a very cool-looking, simple idea.
A slightly more elaborate example is using a color-scale for a figure painting or still life. For a nude figure, I would use the different chords from the scale harmonization for different elements of the figure. I might use the 3- or 4-note chord based on the root note of the scale for the face, the chord built from the 2th note of my scale for an arm, and the chord built on the 5th note for a leg. So using the scale of blue-green major as the example, the face would be blue-green, red-violet, orange, green. The arm would be blue-violet, red, yellow, blue-green. The leg would be orange, green, blue-violet, red. The bump and hollow riff is extremely useful in drawing nude figures or animals, so I always look for these shapes in my models and feature them in the painting, like in the upper arm or knee. Applying the first element of Synchromism, I would try to depict advancing planes in warm colors and receding planes in cool colors. So if the face is looking out at the observer, I might use orange for the nose, because it sticks out, red-violet under the eyes and blue-green for the sides of the cheeks.
So why use color scales in the first place? Unless one is interested in music as well as painting, there may be no good reason. For me, it gives a way to use my knowledge of musical scales as an analog to understanding color. By mapping my knowledge of music notes onto the color wheel, I have a better handle on the relationships between colors, how to flow smoothly from one set of colors to another in a painting. I use my musical sense to tell me when I should abandon my scale and “go outside”, when and how to create tension/release. Also, by limiting myself to the colors of my chosen scale, I free myself to be expressive in other ways. Most importantly, I can use my ability to generate musical ideas to suggest corresponding color ideas to try.
It is important to point out that the use of color scales is just a tool. I spend a lot of time thinking about music scales, but when I am actually playing music, I am not thinking about the key and scale I am in; I’m just playing, but my knowledge and experience of scales influences how I play. In the same way, when I am painting, I am not thinking about my color scale, I just have those colors on my palette and no others (except white). I am therefore freer to explore other variables.
Is there really any connection at all between the 12 colors of the wheel and the 12 musical notes, or indeed between musical and visual arts whatsoever? It’s debatable. There are lots of differences in the way we perceive and understand pitch and color, and in the way they affect our emotions. In my heart, I feel such a connection exists, and that color scales are a great way for me to start exploring it.