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Page 6 of 7

Painting with Color Scales


another in a painting. I use my musical sense to tell me when I should abandon my scale and “go outside”, when and how to create tension/release. Also, by limiting myself to the colors of my chosen scale, I free myself to be expressive in other ways. Most importantly, I can use my ability to generate musical ideas to suggest corresponding color ideas to try.

It is important to point out that the use of color scales is just a tool. I spend a lot of time thinking about music scales, but when I am actually playing music, I am not thinking about the key and scale I am in; I’m just playing, but my knowledge and experience of scales influences how I play. In the same way, when I am painting, I am not thinking about my color scale, I just have those colors on my palette and no others (except white). I am therefore freer to explore other variables.

Is there really any connection at all between the 12 colors of the wheel and the 12 musical notes, or indeed between musical and visual arts whatsoever? It's debatable. There are lots of differences in the way we perceive and understand pitch and color, and in the way they affect our emotions. In my heart, I feel such a connection exists, and that color scales are a great way for me to start exploring it.


As I said above, I have found some of the original Synchromist’s ideas restrictive. This is partly because I think they demonstrated rather a limited grasp of music theory, which is largely the study of scales, and partly because of the times. Wright’s personal tastes in music appear to have been somewhat conservative, even by early 20th century standards . In A Treatise on Color, he calls more discordant intervals such as the flat-5th, or tritone, “noise instead of sound…ceas[ing] to have any harmonic significance”. If someone were to sing out of tune, it would be “ludicrous, and certainly valueless as harmony”. Nowadays, the flat-5 interval is considered the grit that gives jazz/blues/rock-n-roll harmony its edge and interest, essential to its character. Today, people sing out of tune all the time, and it’s called “style”. Wright characterizes the musical key of A-flat as “too sentimental”, but most modern musicians do not recognize this kind of attribution to the different keys.

The early Synchromists mostly stuck with the major musical scale. But there are many other scales besides the major scale, viz. melodic minor, with totally different interval structures. And even within the context of a given scale, there is the concept of mode. "Mode" basically means: out of the 5-7 available notes in the scale, which one is the starting note or main tonality. For example, consider the C

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

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