Color Scales – Part 3

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.

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.