Colour Composition

I’ve written about how to organise the colours in your painting, before.  My previous articles touched on how to choose a set of colours, for your creation and how to organise your palette, before you begin to paint.  The links, to remind you, are below:

The theory is that you should limit your colour palette and choose the colours on that palette very carefully.  You don’t have to slavishly reproduce the colours you see in the subject you are painting, before you, in exact detail.

I suggested some ways of using on-line tools to pick colours according to colour balance theories.  What I didn’t mention was that you need to have a range of tonal values for each colour, without straying too far from the central hue, but I think that goes without saying.  For each colour, you’re going to need a light, medium and dark tone for each.

Lately, I have been doing something interesting.  On my twitter feed, there are numerous people that like to post beautiful pictures (photographs) of landscapes, nature, the cosmos, you name it.  There are hundreds of gorgeous, sumptuous images to view and I enjoy doing that.  Some look to have been enhanced and colour-graded in Photoshop, but many are simply really well-composed pictures captured from nature.

However, quite recently I noticed something very interesting.  The most attractive pictures, as acknowledged by these groups of photography fans, invariably had three, four, or at most five colours dominating the image.  Furthermore, the colours were complimentary, in that they looked good together, just like some of the colour choosers I wrote about earlier, would choose.  Finally, the layout of the dominant colour zones, in the image, had a certain visual balance and composition to it.

That’s not to say that the images were devoid of other incidental colours, although frequently they actually were.  Where incidental colours were used, they were invariably used to draw the eye to compositional elements that you were supposed to notice.  Flecks of contrasting colours and tone were used, in other words, to guide the eye to the subject of the painting.

What this leads to is an intriguing idea, especially for landscape and still life painters.  The idea is also applicable to figurative and portrait painters who want to create interesting backgrounds.  Here is the idea:

Firstly, start by choosing three or four dominant colours, using a colour picking tool, if you like.  I recommend using one of these, at first, because they can provide you with colour choices that, according to the theory of colour harmony and balance, will look good together.  You are permitted an additional, non-descript darkest tone, almost black.

Next, work out which zones of your canvas these colours will occupy.  If you have a scene with some sky, mountains, trees and a river in the foreground, then choose block shapes to represent those primary areas.  Note that the river will, in all likelihood, be used to create the illusion of reflected light in the water, so the river will echo the colours chosen for the sky and the rest of the scene.  Also, choose two or even three colours for the sky, because you can blend those to make a colour gradient that looks quite spectacular.

This is the magical part:  If you choose your three of four colours with one of the colour choosing tools I wrote about in an earlier post, then it doesn’t much matter which of these you choose for the sky, the mountains, the trees and so on.  Whatever you do, the painting’s colour composition is going to look visually balanced, even if the elements you paint are in false colours.  Nothing stops you from having a magenta sky, fading to orange, bright blue trees and a deep turquoise river, for example.

Having applied those blocks of colour to your canvas, so that you have a coloured ground to paint on, broken down into your dominant colour zones, you can now set about blending the sky from one colour to another.  You can paint the details of the mountains and trees (if that’s what you’re painting), using your dark colour to create the outline details first and painting the highlights with a colour related to one of your dominant colours (it ought to be your tree zone colour, for the trees, and your mountain zone colour, for the mountains, as an example).  When painting the details, the aim is to choose only tonal colours, in each zone, that relate to the dominant colour you first chose for that zone.

As a third pass, you can now blend some of the colour zones into the others and add visual highlights to create little details in the subject matter of your composition.  What you finish up with is a semi-abstract representation of a natural looking landscape, with false colours, if you wish, but here is the important part – the colours of the overall work look harmonious and the painting is, therefore, pleasing to the eye.

I discovered this worked by taking some photographs of those beautiful images into Paint.NET and applying a plug-in colour effect, called “Colour Flip/Rotate”, written by Ed Harvey.  Here is a link to it:

The plug-in works by rotating, or reflecting, the colour palette.   The relative distance between each of the colours chosen, on the colour wheel, is maintained, but the hue changes.  If you start with a palette chosen according to a colour harmony theory, as I have suggested, then the modified palette still conforms to the colour harmony theory.

In other words, if you start with an image that has a balanced, harmonious colour palette to begin with and apply the effect, the resultant image also has a balanced, harmonious colour palette, even though the colours are completely different and somewhat surprising.  Your trees might turn to orange and your sky to green, but the image still looks pleasing.  Furthermore, if you have been careful to compose your image, so that the dominant colour zones are in an interesting spatial relationship to one another, then that relationship is, unsurprisingly, preserved as well.

What this tells us is that one of our shared aesthetic judgements about beauty, as indicated by a large population of photographs deemed to be “beautiful images”, consists mainly of choosing colours that work together harmoniously and not only composing the subject matter of our painting, so that it is visually appealing, but also organising the dominant colour zones in the painting, so that those are in a visually appealing relationship too.  What matters less is whether or not you represent the colours of the scene realistically.  The sky doesn’t have to be blue, the mountains don’t have to be brown and the trees do not need to be green.  In fact, it is much better if they are not.

I invite you to search for lovely landscape photographs, on line and observe for yourself.  The pictures a lot of people seem to like most have only a few dominant colours in them and not only is the subject matter of the photograph composed nicely, when the photograph is taken, but the colour zones are similarly placed in a composition of their own (which usually happens to be closely related to the composition of the main subject matter image elements, actually).

The fireworks that bring an image to life is in how saturated the colours are, how they blend or transition, from colour zone to colour zone and finally, how highlight colours, perhaps unrelated to your dominant colour palette, are used to draw the eye to cardinal image details.  If a photographer can capture such scenes with a camera, painters, sure as heck, can paint them!

The final technique, to give the painting some sort of colour unity is to mention or suggest colours from one dominant colour zone, on your canvas, in the other colour zones.  It doesn’t have to be much.  A few leaves on a tree.  Perhaps some light reflecting on the snow cap of a mountain.  All you have to do is place a little of one dominant colour from your chosen palette, into the other colour zones.

The great thing about this technique is that it works as well for pastel shaded colour palettes and colour choices which are not as highly saturated (i.e. tints), as it does for brightly coloured pictures, which really dazzle the eye.  It will also work well in acrylic paint, oil paint and pastels, though it is harder to achieve the necessary colour saturation in water colours.

Another great thing about this technique is that it is relatively fast to paint.  You spend very little of your time mixing colours, once you have laid out your dominant colours and their tones.  Adjustments, using your chosen darkest colour, or white, can be placed judiciously in each colour zone.  If your dominant colours stray or are deliberately placed, in a small amount, in other colour zones, it simply serves to tie the image together better.

This is a really nice way of designing stunning-looking colour schemes for your paintings.  Give it a try!

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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