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 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.