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Painting with Color Scales


scale. For example, the root, or "tonic", chord in the musical key of C major is C- E-G, the C major triad. (The word triad is used here in the musical rather than the color-harmony sense.) In the example of the color key of red major, the root chord would be red, yellow, blue-green. This color triad, juxtaposing these colors, can then be used to emphasize the emotional, psychological content of an important area of the painting, for example, the face of a figure.

Other chord triads besides the root chord can also be generated. To form a triad, you take any note from the scale, skip over a note, take the next note, skip a note, then take the next note. For example, you start with G, skip A, take B, skip C, and take D, resulting in the triad G-B-D. Generating chords in this manner is called harmonizing the major scale.

Any color can be chosen as the dominant key color, so how do you choose? Stanton Macdonald-Wright believed that each color key was imbued with its own emotional and psychological qualities and impact. He lays these out in his book, A Treatise on Color. He actually builds these meanings up from one simple axiom: Yellow = Light, Red = Strong, Blue = Shadow. Proceeding from there, Orange = Red +Yellow, or Strong-Light, Violet = Red+Blue, or Strong-Shadow, Green = Yellow+Blue, or Neutrality (Light+Shadow). He then associates these attributes of the colors themselves to psychological/emotional states of the mind, deeming some color keys suitable for some subjects and unsuitable for others. I personally find this last bit a little too subjective and restrictive.

One way I narrow the choice down is simply to decide whether my painting will be warm or cool. A southwest desert landscape at midday will probably make me think of a warm or hot color, like yellow-orange; if I were painting a human figure and wanted to convey a down or depressed feeling, I might choose (…wait for it…) blue.

Sometimes I already have a musical sound in mind, with its own scale, or more correctly, its own mode (see below). If I have a particular mode in mind and one or more colors that I want to include, then the mental exercise of finding a color- mode satisfying all the requirements can be quite challenging. For example, say I want a major color scale with both red and red-violet in it. Well, there are only two choices: red major and blue-green major (you do the math).

Sometimes the answer to the question, “What key should I use?” is rather less analytic and more subjective. You choose the key that you like at that particular moment, for whatever particular reason you have. Sure, I let my brain do a little

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

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