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2 / 7

Page 2 of 7

Painting with Color Scales


Color scales

First of all, what exactly is a “color scale”? Put most simply, a color scale is a set of some number of distinct colors. By “distinct” I mean different in hue, not merely in value; for example, a pink made by mixing red and white is not considered distinct from red, whereas orange is considered distinct from red. How many is “some number”? Well, with a few exceptions, in the world of music, scales generally consist of 5-7 notes chosen from the so-called chromatic scale, which encompasses all the notes (see below). So, could you just take any old 5-7 notes or colors at random and make a “scale”? Well, yes, you could. And you might get really interesting results. However, there is also a more systematic approach, primarily based on musical major scales, which makes color scales much more useful in my visual artistic process. That more systematic view is what I will present now.

Color scales were primarily the invention of Canadian Percyval Tudor-Hart (1873- 1954), who taught both Wright and Russell in Paris. Tudor-Hart related the color wheel directly to the musical chromatic scale. The basic idea is as follows:

The “standard” paint color wheel consists of 12 colors: the 3 primaries, red, yellow, blue; the 3 secondaries, orange, green, violet; and, 6 tertiaries, made by mixing a primary and one of its adjacent secondaries, for example, red-orange (tertiary), a mixture of red (primary) and orange (secondary). There is some confusion about the names of the colors; for example, some authors name the primaries magenta, yellow, cyan. Likewise, the western musical chromatic scale has 12 notes: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B. We tend to call it the “western chromatic” scale, but in reality, the same basic 12-note gamut has arisen in virtually every musical culture throughout the world.

Why there should be a common 12-note scale, and why there is a common 12- color wheel, throughout the whole world, are fascinating questions in and of themselves, and should be considered in a separate article. Suffice it to say for now, that there really are basically 12 musical notes and 12 colors on the wheel. So let’s see. Twelve colors and twelve notes. Coincidence…..? Hmmm.

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. Thus, in our example,

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

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