Color Scales – Part 1

Painting with Color Scales
by Joey Howell (c) 2007

I came to painting rather late in life; indeed I had been a serious, practicing musician for over 40 years when I first even attempted to draw with a pencil. So when I finally took up painting, I was very eager to bring as much as possible of my knowledge and experience as a musical artist over to my practice as a visual artist. At the time, I had just seen an exhibition of Synchromist paintings by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and I felt that his use of “color scales” was a perfect way to tap that reservoir of ability. So, at least in some of my work, I have adopted the color-scale approach to painting. In this article, I will give a very brief sketch of the history and basic elements of Synchromism, followed by a more in-depth description of one of those elements: color scales.


Synchromism was an art movement based on the concept of painting “with color”. The movement had only two members, Americans Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) and Morgan Russell (1886-1953). Their first showing of Synchromist paintings was in Munich in 1913. Russell abandoned Synchromism in 1916; Wright, however, painted many of his most compelling canvases in the late teens and 20s, holding to the Synchromist principles into the early 1930s. He remained a color-painter throughout his life and returned to use of color-scales in his later years.

The basic elements of Synchromism are:

  1. Use of color alone to define form and space, based on the well-known psycho-visual phenomenon that warm colors (red, orange,      yellow) appear to advance and cool colors (green, blue, violet) to recede in the visual field.
  2. Application of “color-scales”, directly related to musical scales, to create the color scheme, and thus, the emotional impact in a painting. More on color scales follows below.
  3. Form based on the “principal rhythm”, also called the “hollow and bump”, consisting of 2 contraposed curves, expressed as ( ). This fundamental physical tension is reiterated over and over in synchromist work.

Color scales

What exactly is a “color scale”? It is a set of some number of distinct colors. By “distinct” I mean different in hue, not merely in value; for example, a pink made by mixing red and white is not considered distinct from red, whereas orange is considered distinct from red. How many is “some number”? Well, with a few exceptions, in the world of music, scales generally consist of 5-7 notes chosen from the so-called chromatic scale, which encompasses all the notes (see below). So, could you just take any old 5-7 notes or colors at random and make a “scale”? Well, yes, you could. And you might get really interesting results. However, there is also a more systematic approach, primarily based on musical major scales, which makes color scales much more useful in my visual artistic process.

Color scales were primarily the invention of Canadian Percyval Tudor-Hart (1873-1954), who taught both Wright and Russell in Paris. Tudor-Hart related the color wheel directly to the musical chromatic scale.

The basic idea is as follows:  The “standard” paint color wheel consists of 12 colors: the 3 primaries, red, yellow, blue; the 3 secondaries, orange, green, violet; and, 6 tertiaries, made by mixing a primary and one of its adjacent secondaries, for example, red-orange (tertiary), a mixture of red (primary) and orange (secondary). There is some confusion about the names of the colors; for example, some authors name the primaries magenta, yellow, cyan. Likewise, the western musical chromatic scale has 12 notes: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B. We tend to call it the “western chromatic” scale, but in reality, the same basic 12-note gamut has arisen in virtually every musical culture throughout the world.

Why there should be a common 12-note scale, and why there is a common 12-color wheel, throughout the whole world, are fascinating questions in and of themselves.   So let’s see. Twelve colors and twelve notes. Coincidence…..? Hmmm.


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