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Color Harmony: Principles

Bridget Riley {1} distinguished between pictorial color (color needed to make a picture) and perceptual color (everyday experience of color: as it actually is). Artists have to work with both, recasting their sensations in pictorial terms.

Artists also need a method, a way of creating their pictorial reality. Color theory basics became an important support in the nineteenth century, but its concepts were not consistently applied, and were not always correct. (It's also worth stressing that there is no unchallengeable principle of color, nor firm conceptual basis to picture making — which may be just as well, as each artistic sensibility can then make its unique expression.)

History of Color

Nonetheless, some trends or general principles are apparent in European painting: {1}

Titian was the first artist to create such a spatial structure with color alone. His pictorial unity was made with color relations, by modulating and picking up the same color in various tones and hue variations throughout a painting — always bearing in mind that colors created by juxtapositions have also to create a unity.


Veronese and then Watteau adopted some of Titian's practices, using decoration, fabrics, architecture and objects as agents carrying color around their pictures. Rubens carried the components of his skin tones to other objects in his paintings.


Caravaggio introduced a workable formula, simplifying color to chiaroscuro. Tone was divorced from color, readily lending itself to engraving and teaching, a conception that held sway in European art until the nineteenth century.

VelasquezVelasquez appeared to be using chiaroscuro but in fact used grays as colors, hovering between warm and cool to create space.


Vermeer brought primaries (yellow and blue) together in a focus of interest and then spread them out into other parts of the painting. Poussin does something similar, finding some dominant color chord to orchestrate around.


Delacroix worked out his color schemes prior to painting, often years before. Commonly he used the greatest tonal contrast when color was diminished, and least contrast when colors were strong.


MonetMonet and Impressionists {2} used what they called a perceptual 'enveloppe' - typically a representation of light and air by pairs of complementaries which induced colors by interaction, and a secondary interaction between induced colors and primaries. There might be three or more pairs in each painting, these being used to represent the sensations the painter actually experienced in front of nature. Violet for shadows was much ridiculed, and in fact (contrary to theory) a simple black was often used.


Seurat and the Pointillists grouped colors into five categories: local, direct reflected light, partially reflected/absorbed light, local color and ambient complementary color In practice, however, Seurat employed just two principles: he increased the contrast of tone at meeting of dark and light objects, and used complementary colors placed in dots side by side.

CezanneCezanne created pictures with a single, dislocated plane, orchestrating color and simplifying shapes to do so.



The Cubists used the simple shapes but opened up depth again by color


Matisse argued that if the precise character of sensations could be represented by color, then the procedure could be reversed, pictorial color creating its own sensations.

Color Analyses

Color theory basics will take contemporary painters only so far. They will need to make their own analyses — indeed, it is essential that they do. Painters inherit traditions, but it is their small departures from usual practice, and the reasons why they're made, that are so illuminating. Here are a few analyses of color harmony: click on the links to see the artist's works in more detail.


TiepoloTiepolo used complementary and split-analogous for preference, but usually added a further color to give variety. Purple was rarely used. Colors tended to be sharp or acid. Highlights (white usually) made up 10-15% of area, and were used for composition and contrast. Whites were rarely pure but generally creamy, greenish, etc. High-lit areas were always serrated with shadow and boldly painted to give energy and movement. Dark tones made up 10-15% of area but did not play any part in composition: used for modeling and to some extent contrast. Key to composition was tertiaries — about 40% of area — which link the purer colors In 'The Finding of Moses' (opposite) we see the gradation from gray-green robe to gray-green vegetation of background to yellowish-gray-green of dress in shadow to green-yellow of shadowed dress to bright yellow dress of queen (central character). The pink lining of the dress links through flesh tints to scarlet tunic of jester: deep blue of dress of LH figure links through paler blue of dress of RH figure to cerulean blue of sky and palest blue of cloak of figure behind queen.


BoucherBoucher was a decorative painter: refined and feminine. A triadic color scheme was generally used, but two colors — often red and green — are so pronounced that the scheme can seem a complementary one. Colors were acid and cold, thus giving the flesh tones an extra warmth. Purple rarely appeared, and yellow-greens sparingly. Flesh tints were nacreous-orange, never pink: anatomy is sensitive but there is little hint of the skeleton, only of firm, softly glowing skin. Draperies seemed always to be silk: thin, silvery and expensive. Paintings were generally light in key with highlights (sky and flesh) making up 30% of area. Skies were calm, draperies glittered and flesh glowed. Dark tones were rarely very deep, and tended to be massed, often in corners of painting, making up under 10% of area. Color harmonies were much more limited than Tiepolo's, often being no more than a juxtaposition of complementaries, creating an agitation that offsets the languor of the scene. Boucher never used the tertiaries in Tiepolo's manner, and though there were low-intensity colors they tended to sink restfully into the background.

John Singer Sargent

Singer SargentJohn Singer Sargent (1865-1925) Painted genre, landscapes and portraits in oil and watercolor (2500 works), but is best known for portraits (700). He was very popular with Americans and the nouveax riche, whom he invested with presence and panache. Painting from early age, he studied under Carolus-Duran, and was painting acceptable portraits by 1879. His 'Oyster Catchers of Cancale' (opposite, 1879) looks Impressionist, but is in fact solidly based on studio traditions — deft brushwork, dark colors and glazes. Sargent had made his name by the later 1880's, after the notorious 1884 portrait of Mme Gautreau. The color scheme was simple: often complementaries or split complementaries with a good deal of chiaroscuro. Sargent was a great socialite (though shy), an excellent musician, intelligent and well read in four languages. A painter in the tradition of Velasquez and Hals, using the gesture to delineate style and character, his success aroused great envy among younger generations and he was denounced as slick and superficial after his death.

Further Reading

Text references are to these publications, well worth searching for:

1. 'Color for the Painter' by Bridget Riley in 'Color: Art and Science'. T. Lamb & J. Bourriau (Eds.) C.U.P. 1995

2. 'The History of Color in Art' by D. Bomford in 'Color: Art and Science'. T. Lamb & J. Bourriau (Eds.) C.U.P. 1995

Also useful are:

3. History of Color in Painting With New Principles of Color Expression. Faber Birren. Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1980.

4. The New Munsell Student Color Set, 3rd Edition. Jim Long Jim. Fairchild Publications. 2011.

5. Colour Theory for Painters by Paul Centore. 99main. More theoretical, including Munsell system. November 2012.


Color Theory: Mixing Paint Colors : Color Theory: Juxtaposing Colors

Colour Theory: Balance and Harmony

Art Techniques & Styles : How to Understand Color Theory & Pigments

Impressionism Degas and Color Theory


a. 'Esther and Ahasuerus' by Veronese. 1555. San Sebastiano. Venice. A closer orchestration than Titian employed: sumptuous color, lively rhythms and great variation in tone and color purity about a complementary scheme of red and green.

b. 'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez. 1656. Museo del Prado Madrid. Velázquez models space using warm and cool tones of gray, adds virtuoso brushwork for sparkle, and gives a sympathetic treatment to the characters to make them living personages.

c. 'Bathing at La Grenoillère' by Claude Monet. 1869. The National Gallery. London. A typical Impressionist work, though still using the classic split analogous color harmony of blue, blue-green and green opposed by red-orange.

d. 'The Basket of Apples' by Paul Cezanne. c.1895/ The Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago. A simple color harmony (red, red-orange, orange) that Cezanne used so often to model space.

e. 'The Finding of Moses' by Giambattista Tiepolo. c.1740. The National Galleries of Scotland. Edinburgh.

f. 'Cupid a Captive' by Francois Boucher. 1754. The Wallace Collection. London.

g. 'The Oyster Catchers' by John Singer Sargent. c.1878. Museum of Fine Arts. Boston.