Lesson 6: Color Harmonies

The Flute Player

Good painting is built upon a trifecta of Craft, Expression and Construct. As with most things all must be balanced.

Craft, technique, is important but it is not the end game. Craft (drawing, composition, color, design, etc.) underpins Expression. Craft is subordinate to the whole.

Expression that lacks an understructure of sure craft will collapse into meaningless treacle.

The Construct is the language of art. It is the Construct, the development of new ways of seeing and invention of plastic form, that separates great artists (such as Picasso, Rembrandt, Pollack, Van Gogh, etc.) from the second rank. Of course, any such statement is fraught with contradictions. Suffice it to say that great art defies analysis.

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#1: Intro and Notes on Drawing

#2: Unity

#3: Elements of Composition

#4: Architecture of Design

#5: Beginning a Painting

#6: Color Harmonies

#7: Creative Process | Pochade

#8: Creative Process 2 | Watercolor Study of A Young Girl

#9: Getting the BIG Shape

#10: A Walk in a Frozen Wood

#11: Drawing Hands

#12: Drawing the Skull

#13: Velazquez: Alla Prima

#14: Creative Process - Redux

#15: The Power of Triangles

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As an artist in the process of acquiring your craft it is important to keep in mind the other two tenets of art-making: expression and construct.

First, beware of becoming merely a technician. Yes, learning how to draw and paint well demands constant application and discipline. But there is a line where in the pursuit of academic perfection one loses the art.

On the other hand there are many who resist acquiring a high level of craft for fear of losing their 'uniqueness'. Or, worse still, strive to develop a 'style'. In my experience a beginner artist who ventures too far down that road too soon cannot be called back. The tragedy is that instead of developing their own, deeply layered voice, they will forever trundle along a very well-traveled and crowded path.

As for the Construct ... that is a life-long pursuit of acquiring knowledge and understanding. And that is where the the realm of passion and the love of art is found.

In Lesson 5: Beginning a Painting I demonstrated how I approach the design of my composition using Dynamic Symmetry (also known as Symphonic Composition and even as Sacred Geometry). Basically, it is a run-of-the-mill Euclidian usage of rabatements, diagonals and arcs. Nothing that a freshman high school student couldn't handle.

The geometry unites the figure with my canvas into a concordant whole.

I sketched in my figure quite loosely with a #14 bristle filbert loaded with a diluted mixture of raw umber and vine black. My main concern is to present an energy that will carry to the final painting.

Portrait painting beginning

portrait painting - coloring in

Next comes the Ebauche. This is the initial, dead, coloring-in. Since my intent is for a pretty fast painting I skipped the Pochade. A Pochade is a small thumbnail painting wherein both the composition and color scheme are worked out.

Curiously whereas many professional artists will often do a Pochade, particularly for a sustained complex work, very few amateur painters will bother with such a nuisance. I'll talk about the Pochade in a later lesson.

My intent is for a playful painting; kind of a fused Caravaggio/Hals feeling. Why not? Mostly I wanted to see where this might lead. And what's more playful than hot pink.

The Figure/Ground Relationship is of utmost importance to the narrative of a painting. Don't make the mistake of rendering the background as an afterthought.

That said, however, the ground must remain subordinate to the figure. I have set myself up for a challenge here by taking an abstract expressionist approach, but I want to convey a playful sense of music making.

As a painting's narrative develops your palette of options narrows. To render the figure with a highly finished academic polish would be both incongruous and ludicrous. My best, and only, option is to paint the figure with bravura brush work.

Portrait painting - figure|ground

color 1

Unity is the prime agenda, not only must my composition and color harmony comply but so, too, must the Abstract Structural Surface (the patina of the paint) be concordant.

Let's take a few moment to talk about color harmony.

There are two basic color harmonies in painting.  The first is the Primary Harmonic Triad: blue, red and yellow.

This basic harmony implies a child-like playfulness. Hence, this harmony is my best choice for this painting.

Alas, if only color were that elementary.

Pictured here is also an arrangement of the Primary Harmonic Triad but with Tint, Tone and Shade.

Tint is adding white to a color. But beware of white. Although a necessary companion, it is not your friend. Excessive tinting results in a bled-out, dessicated and chalky painting.

Tone is adding a color's complement. What looks like green here is actually toned yellow. The complement of yellow is violet. Tone subdues and lowers a color's value. It is invaluable to plastic (giving form to) modeling.

Shade is adding black to a color. Technically, ivory and vine black are blues. Shading has a most undeserved reputation; it has been slandered unjustly. The reality is that shading is one of painting's most powerful color tools. Those delicate blues you see in Rembrandt's flesh hues are actually blacks.



I studied with Michael for 4 years in Vancouver when he had the Vancouver Academy of Art. Micheal offered several courses including composition using euclidian geometry, color theory, drawing with graphite and sanguine, and painting the figure and portrait with watercolor. I took every available course during those four years. I have never had a teacher before or since who was able to impart a system of detailed learning including every stage to accomplish a finished work. Years have passed and I was easily able to translate the watercolor studies to oil which I believe gave me a unique advantage in understanding how to keep color vibrant and applying paint in a conscious approach. I still use all the information that Michael passed on from his years of studying in NYC. The information is solid and practical which always grounds my work in structure, composition, and color.

Vancouver, Canada



The other basic color harmony is the Secondary Harmonic Triad: Green, Orange and Violet. This color arrangement presents a more sophisticated and tranquil effect. Matisse's The Goldfish, 1912 is an excellent use of this triad.

However, manipulating this harmony with Tint, Tone and Shade confers an altogether different emotional quality. Illustrated on the right is Violet Tint, Orange Tone and Green Shade.



You may, or may not, have been wondering about the gray ground in these color illustrations. This is a #5 Gray, halfway between white and black, hence a neutral gray. It is a very poor practice to paint on a white canvas. You simply cannot accurately assess color value. The neutral gray proffers a much more accurate reading of color. The toned canvas you see in my start of The Flute Players is an imprimatura which I streak on thus activating the surface.

There is a color effect called Simultaneous Contrast which, when used well, results in paintings that glow. When used poorly and without consideration of color harmony the effect of Simultaneous Contrast gives a painting dirty and dull look.

Color thrives by virtue of its neighbors. A color will push its neighbor towards it complement.

On the left illustration the Blue is casting an Orange tinge upon the gray. On the right, the Red Tint is pushing the gray toward a tinge of Green Shade. Albeit subtly.



A color's maximum intensity is expressed when juxtaposed next to its complement. On the left the Blue ground is pushing the Orange figure to an even greater luminosity. The Orange figure reciprocates by pushing the Blue to its maximum.

Balance is important too. Whereas Red/Green are complements greater and more beautiful effect is achieved by Shading in equal intensity to Tinting.

At the end of the painting day the final painting must read as a unified whole: the ground must remain subordinate to the figure yet contribute fully to the dominant expression and narrative.

The paint handling in both the figure and ground is rough; this is an action painting wherein every brush stroke must serve a well-defined purpose.

Whether or not this is a successful paint I would be the to know. At least for now. The paint is still wet and needs to be put away, out of my sight, for a short while to cure.

Portrait painting - The Flute Player - Michael Britton 2021
Michael Britton, The Flute Player, Oil on Panel, 2021

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Michael Britton, Monique, Oil on Panel, 11x14", 2021

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