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Painting with Color Scales

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. Then I will explain how I have extended those principles to create a Neosynchromist style.


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 (see below) 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.

Copyright (c) 2007 Joey Howell. All rights reserved.

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