Color Scales – Part 2

Painting with Color Scales
by Joey Howell (c) 2007

So, how does one create a “color scale”? First, choose a predominant “key” color, for example, red. Then, map the colors of the wheel onto notes of the piano keyboard, starting with the key color at C.

Red = C

Red-orange = C#

Orange = D

Yellow-orange = D#

Yellow = E

Yellow-green = F

Green = F#

Blue-green = G

Blue = G#

Blue-violet = A

Violet = A#

Red-violet = B

What is the musical major scale and where did it come from? Many people know the major scale as do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti and back to do. The major scale dates from the time of Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician. Its mathematical/physical basis, as illuminated by Pythagoras, is very fascinating but beyond our current scope. What gives the major scale its characteristic sound is its interval structure. The interval (difference in pitch) structure of any musical major scale (regardless of its key) is whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, where a whole step means skipping over 1 note, like from C to D, skipping C#, and a half step is going from one note to the next, like from C to C# or D# to E. For those less familiar with the piano keyboard, the notes that do not have the “#” or “sharp” sign after the letter are called the “natural” notes, or the “white keys”; those notes with the “#” sign are the “black keys” of the keyboard or “sharp” notes. The sharp notes can also be written with the flat (b) sign, viz. C#=Db; and, sometimes there is a good reason to use one or the other. To avoid confusion, I’ll only use the sharp sign (#). Note that there is only a half step jump from E to F, and from B to C; there is no sharp note between them. Thus the notes of the C major scale are C,D,E,F,G,A,B then back to C, in other words, the “white keys” starting on C.

Now having mapped the key color of red to the keyboard note of C, we can name the notes in the color-scale of red major: red, orange, yellow, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet. These colors will now make up the color palette for a painting. The colors are almost always used pure, never mixed. The value of the color can be raised or lowered. The colors are deployed in separate, discrete, but possibly overlapping patches. According to Tudor-Hart, “color melodies” can be generated by spacing colors out, separated by neutral ground. Furthermore, “color chords” can be composed by the juxtaposition of particular colors from the scale. For example, the root, or “tonic”, chord in the musical key of C major is C-E-G, the C major triad. (The word triad is used here in the musical rather than the color-harmony sense.) In the example of the color key of red major, the root chord would be red, yellow, blue-green. This color triad, juxtaposing these colors, can then be used to emphasize the emotional, psychological content of an important area of the painting, for example, the face of a figure.

Other chord triads besides the root chord can also be generated. To form a triad, you take any note from the scale, skip over a note, take the next note, skip a note, then take the next note. For example, you start with G, skip A, take B, skip C, and take D, resulting in the triad G-B-D. Generating chords in this manner is called harmonizing the major scale.

Any color can be chosen as the dominant key color, so how do you choose? Stanton Macdonald-Wright believed that each color key was imbued with its own emotional and psychological qualities and impact. He lays these out in his book, A Treatise on Color. He actually builds these meanings up from one simple axiom: Yellow = Light, Red = Strong, Blue = Shadow. Proceeding from there, Orange = Red +Yellow, or Strong-Light, Violet = Red+Blue, or Strong-Shadow, Green = Yellow+Blue, or Neutrality (Light+Shadow). He then associates these attributes of the colors themselves to psychological/emotional states of the mind, deeming some color keys suitable for some subjects and unsuitable for others.
I personally find this last bit a little too subjective and restrictive.

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