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Lesson Twelve – Harmony of Colours

Arte and Zeuxis are sitting in the garden of Arte’s home. They are not sitting in chairs, but they sit on the grass behind the house. Arte reclines in expectation of Zeuxis telling her about harmony of colours. But she is in a nervous and combative mood.

Zeuxis: In the previous lessons I mentioned the effects of the interference of adjacent colours on each other. We argued that these effects were more of a nuisance for the painter than for the viewer, and we explained that painters exploited the effects for their better goals.

Arte, impatiently: Yes, Zeuxis, but to where lead us all these explanations on effects of colours and all the theories you explained so far? The important question on colour seems to me not to be how and where colour impressions arise, and also not the difficulties of the painter in using paints on a canvas. The important question is the question of "beauty". What do viewers experience as sublime, as agreeable, as shocking or as simply ugly in colours? In this lies the secret of pleasure in colours for the viewer, and for the painter as a viewer and as an artist.

Zeuxis: So right, Arte. "Beauty" of colours has been called "harmony" of colours, even if there is a lot more to that subject than harmony. Many researchers, psychologists, and of course also painters, have sought to determine the rules that determine harmony of colours. This quest for harmony has been going on since the conception of the art of painting.

Arte: How then would you define harmony?

Zeuxis: Harmony is the agreeable balance of parts in a whole. Harmony of colours is when the combination of coloured surfaces is agreeable to humans. Then we have an aesthetic experience of pleasure.
Why we experience agreeable feelings at certain combinations of colour and disagreeable ones at other combinations remains elusive. Definite and final rules of harmony have not yet been scientifically and conclusively tested. Many individual opinions have been proposed, but the concept of harmony is really hard to define in unequivocal terms.

Arte: How did the concept evolve in history, then?

Zeuxis: Scientists, art critics, and artists were not just after trying to explain the unexpected colour effects of juxtaposed coloured surfaces, which could not be easily explained by any physical theory of light alone. They were also trying to understand which colour combinations were agreeable to humans, in other words which combinations were "harmonious" and which were not.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) expressed the notion in 1935 in simple and direct words, "Actually, you work with few colours. But they seem like a lot more when each one is in the right place G86 ."
This puzzle interested painters since always. Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) was one of the first Renaissance artists to write on the art of painting. He stated in his book "Della Pittura" of 1436, that great variety of colours added to the pleasure and the fame of a painting. The subject of what was pleasing in colour and what was not, fascinated and continues to fascinate theorists of art. The question is difficult, and we may be certain that taste, that is the appreciation of harmony, has evolved with history. We believe the answer to what is harmonious in colours can only be described in very relative, subjective and inconclusive terms.
The German physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke (1819-1892) wrote in 1865 on colours in terms of small and larger intervals, in a book on the contrasts of colours. He wrote that colours of small intervals are the colours that lie next to each other in the natural spectrum. The physical transitions and also the colour transitions between these two are small, and their transitions were generally perceived as agreeable. Colours of larger interval are further away from each other in the natural spectrum, like red and yellow, green and blue. For these colours in general, Brücke thought, the complementary colours were agreeable in adjacent combinations.
Later on, German and Austrian scientists at the end of the nineteenth century made explicit experiments on the perception of colour harmonies, as perceived by humans and reported on these. They discovered and confirmed two rules.
The first rule was that a combination of two colours is the more agreeable as the components differ from each other. The second rule was that when a colour is combined with brightness without colour (white grey, black), or when one combines two colours of different brightness, then always the larger difference in brightness is preferred.
So these two rules, one on the complementary colours and the other on the contrast, seem to work well in our perception of colours.
Agreeable colours seem to seek a maximum of difference between each other!

Arte: That explanation does not help me much, Zeuxis!

Zeuxis: One might explain the effects of hard contrasting colours, and the affinity for complementary colours lie in the fact that our eyes and mind need to process more information on colours that do not differ much, which takes more effort. Seeing contrasting colours would need less information and thus less effort!
A coloured area excites on the retina a colour perception, but that colour seems to excite by an effect of overshoot the complementary colours in neighbouring zones. Our eye and mind, in an effort to perceive most clearly the differences existing in nature, here colours, seem to prefer the largest differences in hues and tones of colours. That is the easiest and thus the preferred.
Leon Battista Alberti already wrote that there was grace when one colour was greatly different from the others near it.

Arte: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also well described such effects in his experiments.

Zeuxis: And so did Michel-Eugène Chevreul. The Retinex theory explains that contrasts in reflectances are actually at work in our colour vision system, so we should not be surprised by the fact that this system works best on strongest contrasts, and seeks these in the first place.
Such rules seem to work on just a few colours. When however many colours are combined, very contrasting combinations do not remain agreeable. That is probably why the greatest painters combined mostly less contrasting hues and more subdued hues.
The effect of combinations of colours on humans depends not only on the colour itself, but often also on our expectancy of colour as linked to an object. For instance, normal tasty food may cause aversion and even sickness when the colour of it is unnatural. Displays of unusual colour combinations in special illumination make people uncomfortable and appear repulsive. Certain colour combinations, as connected to objects, are viewed as pleasant, other as unpleasant, not harmonious.
Leon Battista Alberti wrote about colours in 1436, and he found that pink near green or near sky-blue was agreeable. White placed near almost any other colour gave gladness. Dark colours stood with dignity among various light colours. Yet, Alberti told to use white and gold sparingly. He particularly liked the contrast of colours and he wrote in "Della Pittura" that different colours always had to be used near each other, and also that clear colours needed to be adjacent to darker hues.
Lodovico Dolci in his "Dialogue on Colours" wrote in 1565 that certain colour combinations were agreeable. Grey next to dark orange, yellow-green next to pink, blue next to orange, dark purple next to dark green and white to black or white to flesh-colour were agreeable.

Arte: I remember now that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was also very much interested in the secrets of the harmony of colours. He wrote that there were three leading categories in colours: the powerful, the soft and the splendid.
Powerful colours were yellow, yellow-red and red. These were active colours. Violet and blue, still less green, were less powerful.
Soft colours of the passive side were blue, violet, and much green. Soft were moderate additions to these colours of yellow-red and red-yellow. In each of these two categories the complementary colours were to be excluded to a minimum.
Goethe called these two divisions harmonious each in their own right. But the full harmonious effect, he said, was only created when all colours were exhibited together in due balance.
Combinations of powerful and soft colours on their own and only were agreeable, but the splendid was all the chromatic scale of colours together in due balance. And as stated already, Goethe found that the eye expected next to any colour surface a surface in the complementary colour. This was one of the basic rules of colour harmony, then, Zeuxis.
Goethe furthermore also defined agreeable combinations and wrong combinations. The transitions from yellow over yellow-red to red were pleasant, as well as the transition from blue over blue-red to red. Yellow and green was agreeable, but blue and green together were called the "fool’s colours". Red and green plus black were dark and grave, whereas red and green plus white were a happy combination.
Charles Loch Eastlake, Goethe’s translator to English, remarked that the colours of the great master painters were in their ultimate effect more or less subdued or broken.

Zeuxis: What then is harmony in colours, is very difficult to determine and to fix in rules. Colour harmony is what we perceive as agreeable, successful colour combinations. The combinations may please the eye in various ways that are not easily explained. Moreover, harmony is very subjective. We know that among the myriad of combinations of colours many combinations are pleasant. We also know that other factors, such as the natural colours of objects (that is the influence of the content of a picture), and the balance in the composition of coloured shapes play a role. Moreover, the breaking of harmony may add to the expression of the artist. The painter may have used more dissonant colour combinations, and broken the structural balance of colours to create tension in a picture, or to draw the attention of the viewer to particular places elements or scenes.

Zeuxis draws out his magic screen and presents to Arte three painting in various windows of the screen, paintings he showed before.

-> Josef Albers (1888-1978). Study for Homage to the Square; Beaming. The Tate Gallery. London. 1963.

-> Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Dark over Brown Nr. 14. Musée National d’Art Moderne. Paris. 1963.

-> Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). The Coronation of the Virgin. Musée du Louvre. Paris. Ca. 1430-1435.

Zeuxis: Look again at Josef Albers’ "Homage to the Square" and to Mark Rothko’s "Dark over Brown". Here, colours are used that do not obey any intuitive "rule" of harmony as we have stated above. Yet, these pictures have a strong and strange attraction. Quite the contrary of such pictures is Fra Angelico’s "Coronation of the Virgin". Here, we find all the chromatic colours in very pure and light hues assembled in symmetry, and added with the spiritual content, this painting is really a splendid picture. We like intuitively and without restraint a Fra Angelico. But are we not fascinated at least as much by the Rothko and Albers painting, which were deliberately made in tension of disharmony?

Arte: Yes, Zeuxis. Those paintings are really marvellous. They weaken my dark mood, and when I see these pictures I grow warm inside, yet I get chilly in my spine and I feel so restful. Time flies by, and I couldn’t care less. These paintings are eternal. They are paintings of spirituality!

Zeuxis waves his hand in front of Arte and says: Come back on earth, girl. Here comes a piece of heavy theory, Chevreul’s theory of harmony!

Arte, dreamily: Fine, Zeuxis, I am with you again.

Zeuxis: Michel-Eugène Chevreul also gave his opinion on agreeable combinations of colours. He experimented for months combining colours, studying the effects, and with his collaborators, he tried to form an opinion on the quality of the combinations. This was very important for the Royal Manufactories of the Gobelins where Chevreul was director of dyes. Chevreul decided to study when colour combinations were agreeable to viewers and when not. He described his personal preferences, and was aware of that subjectivity, but he still thought his preferences to be universal in all humans.

Arte: Which colours did Chevreul like?

Zeuxis: As single colours, Chevreul liked light blue, pink, deep yellow, light green, and violet.
The combinations red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet, yellow and green, yellow and blue he found agreeable. These were of course mostly examples of the simultaneous view of complementary colours, as he had defined them. Passable combinations were red and yellow, red and blue, orange and yellow, orange and green, orange and violet, and green and violet. He liked the series of tones of the same scale, which begins with white and terminates with black.
Chevreul wrote that the simultaneous view of different colours belonging to scales more or less near each other could be agreeable, but an agreeable effect was difficult to obtain, because the colours often injured each other. He proposed then to sacrifice one of the colours and lower its tone to make the other more vibrant.
For Chevreul, passable contiguous colours were red and yellow, red and blue, orange and yellow, orange and green, orange and violet and green and violet.
He found particularly bad the juxtaposition of red and orange, red and violet, green and blue, and blue and violet. These were a combination of one of the primary colours with a secondary colour obtained from this primary. But that combination was still better than using as adjacent colours a primary with a complementary not derived from that primary. Chevreul decided that combinations of blue and violet were worse than red and violet, and yellow with orange was better than blue and green together.
When two non-complementary colours were placed adjacently, they could in some cases improve each other (when they were dissimilar enough such as yellow and blue), mutually injure each other (when they were both similar such a violet and blue), or one might get improved and the other injured
Light blue, pink, deep yellow, bright green, violet and orange gained from being assorted with white. But juxtaposing dark blue and dark red with white, or dark green and violet with white, gave bad effects, because these formed too strong a contrast of tone. Orange and white, two brilliant hues combined, was too bright a contrast, and for yellow to be agreeable with white, Chevreul proposed to take the highest tone of pure yellow to produce a good effect.

Arte: So these were Chevreul’s preferences on colours and their combinations. What were his proposals for harmony then?

Zeuxis: Chevreul decided on six harmonies of colours, comprised in two kinds, which he called the harmony of analogous colours and the harmonies of contrast.

The Harmony of Analogous Colours

Zeuxis: In the harmonies of analogous colours, Chevreul first cited the harmony of scale. This was produced by the simultaneous view of various tones of one scale of the same hue, whereby the tones were more or less approximating.
Secondly, he cited the harmony of hues produced by the simultaneous view of tones of more or less the same height, belonging to hues that were more or less approximating.
Thirdly, he wrote of the harmony of a dominant coloured light, whereby different colours are viewed, assorted comfortably to the law of contrast, but one of them predominating.
Michel-Eugène Chevreul preferred this harmony of analogue colours to harmony of contrasting colours. Chevreul did not well define what he meant by analogue colours, but we may assume that he meant colours of almost the same hue and, or almost of the same tone.
So, Chevreul preferred paintings and Gobelins tapestries made entirely in colours that differed not too much from each other. That was a personal preference however, and a preference of a dignified French professor of the middle of the nineteenth century. We can very well suppose that taste has evolved, and also that taste differs among people. So, when one class of people prefers analogous colours, should a person who prefers vividly contrasting colours be considered vulgar? In these lessons we will propose the dominance of the particular taste of the individual viewer, and we will not impose any particular definite, final opinion. It remains for every viewer to decide what he or she prefers, and that opinion is to be respected!

Arte: Could you somewhat better illustrate the various harmonies of analogue colours of Chevreul with a few examples of paintings or drawings, Zeuxis? It is not very clear to me what Chevreul meant.

The Harmony of Scale

Zeuxis: Chevreul told that a picture in all the same colour hue, but wherein the various tones of that same hue all appear is harmonious.
Examples of such pictures are all drawings, engravings or etchings, which deliver black and grey images on white paper. Here, the artist uses all tones of grey. Equally under this category fall grisaille and camaieu paintings, especially when they are made with chalk on paper. But also oil paintings can be made thus in all the tones of one hue, or in one dominant colour tint with varying tones of this hue or very similar ones. Chevreul stated that the tones should be approximate, without abrupt contrasting combinations.

Zeuxis puts his magic screen back in place and shows a drawing of Michelangelo.

-> Michelangelo Buonarroti (1465-1564). The Dream of Human Life. The Courtauld Institute Galleries. London. Around 1533.

Zeuxis: We look at "The Dream of Human Life", a drawing made in black chalk on paper by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The picture represents the dream of a human. A heroic youth sits on a box, holding a globe, representing earth. The angel blows on a trumpet, close to the head of the youth, to blow away sinful images, and to bring the youth to virtue. Michelangelo depicted the Seven Deadly Sins behind the young man, whereas beneath we see masks in a box, representing illusions.
The entire picture comes to us now as soft shades of black. We admire especially the way Michelangelo sculpted the body in delicate changes of grey zones.

The Harmony of approximate Hues

Zeuxis: Chevreul wrote on the harmony of approximate hues. This is the harmony of hues that are similar to each other and that also are of the same tone and the same intensity.

Zeuxis shows another picture on his screen.

-> Juan Manuel Díaz Caneja (1905-1988). Landscape. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Madrid. 1962.

Zeuxis: We look at a picture of Juan Manuel Díaz Caneja, a Spanish figurative painter who became known after World War II. Caneja’s painting "Landscape" of 1962 shows a view of nature with a high horizon, as seen from an airplane.
All the hues of the ground are soft and more or less approximating. They are clear in light, and all the tones of the various colours are similar. We see faint yellow and faint brown, with here and there a very light pastel blue. The colours of the sky are in various tones of the same scale. Caneja’s picture is an example of what Chevreul called the harmony of analogous colours. Since the hues in Caneja’s painting are so harmonious, a feeling of quietness and repose radiates from his view. Chevreul did not define what he meant by analogous colours, but these colours of the same tone in Caneja’s picture would surely have merited his term.

The Harmony of a dominant colour

Zeuxis: Chevreul wrote on the harmony of one dominant hue. In this colour harmony, the viewer sees various colours combined according to the law of contrasts, so that the colours do not destroy each other but mutually enhance, but in which also one colour dominates the picture.
The most immediate example is nature herself. Our image of nature is of the vast green pastures or woods in spring or early summer. Here the colour green dominates, yet we can find flowers of all colours. The green dominates all these colours.
In winter, snow covers nature with a white blanket, and this colour dominates any shade that may appear. In autumn, grey and brown shades dominate.

Zeuxis projects a picture of Gustav Klimt.

-> Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). The Pear Tree. The Bush-Reisinger Museum. Harvard University. Cambridge (MA). 1903.

Zeuxis: Gustav Klimt made marvellous paintings of themes of nature. His picture "Birnbaum" or the "Pear Tree" shows a dominant green colour of the tree. But in the tree are numerous yellow and orange stipples. These colours are not the complementary colours of green, and thus could hurt any juxtaposed green colour. But the green dominates so much, that the yellow becomes more orange by the influence of the green’s complementary colour, red, so that the whole is very peaceful and harmonious.

Zeuxis changes pictures again on his magic screen.

-> Henri-Edmond Cross (1836- 1910). Ambiance of Evening. Musée d’Orsay. Paris. 1893-1894.

Zeuxis: To illustrate this further, we also look at a painting of Henri-Edmond Cross, a Pointillist painter of the eighteenth century. His painting "L’air du Soir", the ambiance of evening, is all in soft brown hues. Yet various contrasting colours can also be remarked. We see blue, orange, yellow, red and green. One colour dominates all other and transforms them to its overall tone. This is what Chevreul meant by using contrasting colours but one of them dominating.

The Harmony of Contrasting Colours

Zeuxis: In the harmonies of contrasts, Chevreul cited first the harmony of contrast of scale when two tones of the same colour scale, very distant from each other, are viewed.
Secondly for Chevreul, harmony was manifested in the harmony of contrast of hues produced by viewing tones of different height, each belonging to contiguous scales of hues contiguous on the colour wheel.
Thirdly, Chevreul cited the harmony of contrast of colours produced by viewing simultaneously colours of very distant scales, assorted according to the law of contrast. These then should preferably be complementary colours.
These rules refer to contrasts of one colour with very different tones, to contiguous colours but of very different tones, and to contrasts of very different colours, also at different tones and then arranged according to the complementary tints.
When colours do not accord well, and yet have to be used together, Chevreul proposed to separate them by white, grey or black. Painters had already come to the same conclusion in early times. But then, one had to take into consideration the tone of the hues, and the proportion of sombre versus luminous colours.

The Harmony of Contrast of Scale

Zeuxis: One has harmony of contrast of scale when one finds in a picture the same colour hue, but represented in very different tone. For instance this happens in a picture when one sees areas of bright yellow and of dark yellow together. Or bright red and dark red, light blue and dark blue.

Zeuxis projects a painting by Titian.

-> Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488-1576). Flora. The Louvre. Paris.

Zeuxis: Titian painted his "Flora" all in soft yellow-brown hues. We see only a few gradations of these yellow-brown colours, which are not exactly of the same hue, but are contiguous on the hair of Flora, as well as the cloak she wears, in tints that are of very different tone. Her hair is auburn, but still a brown hue, even though of delicate red-brown hues. The night robe of Flora is white, but Titian painted it in a creamy, very light yellowish-brown, which is almost the same colour as the colour of her flesh and of her face. Furthermore, Titian positioned Flora before a background of a very dark brown that is not exactly black, but bears some of the same hue as the whole picture.

The Harmony of more or less contiguous Hues at very different Tones

Zeuxis: In this contrast, almost the same colours, so colours of more or less contiguous scale on the chromatic circle, contrast in different tones.
Chevreul told that it was very difficult to create harmony in this way, because the similar tints could hurt each other, always applying his principle of simultaneous contrast and the modifications of tints it could induce.

Zeuxis shows once more a painting of Seurat on his transparent screen.

-> Georges Seurat (1859-1891). "Un Dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte". The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. Chicago. 1884-1886.

Zeuxis: We look at one of the most famous paintings of Divisionist art, a painting of Georges Seurat called "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte". We see here many tints in adjacent areas but those tints do not obey the major rule of contrasts, which is the use of complementary hues. Yet the tints are almost of the same tone.
For instance, the lake is blue, but the trees above very green. Green and blue are not complementary colours, so might hurt each other. But Seurat painted them as not so vibrant hues, and in almost the some tone and intensity, so that the colours do not seem to hurt each other.
In the centre of the picture, in a woman holding an umbrella to protect her from the sunrays, Seurat used an orange-brown in the shirt, but a variation of pink in the robe. These colours are of tints that do not differ very much, so might destroy each other, but Seurat found exactly those hues that seem to be symbiotic.
The people are situated on a green lawn, and the green lit by the sun is very bright, and altogether in a very different tint from the grass that is in the forefront in shadows. Yet, the hues form a harmonious combination. In the dark green are a man and woman on the right side, and Seurat painted the dress of the lady in dark blue-purple tints. The two dark colours being both equally dark and not complementary colours, might have hurt each other, but Seurat brought a slightly brighter border of green around the dress. That hue differs much in tone from the dress, re-establishing harmony as harmony of contrasts.

The Harmony of Contrasts

Zeuxis: In the total harmony of contrasts, very differing and preferably complementary colours of very different tones and intensities can be used. For harmony to occur, the colours have to strengthen each other, so be complementary colours.
Chevreul wrote that among all the harmonies of contrast this harmony of complementary hues was the most desirable, the most agreeable.

Zeuxis projects Gino Severini’s landscape.

-> Gino Severini (1883-1966). Landscape in Civray. Private Collection Rau. Germany. 1909.

Zeuxis: We look again at Gino Severini’s "Landscape in Civray". Severini used only a few hues in this picture, mostly red, orange and green. These colours are bright, but all soft. Although red and green are contrasting colours, they are so mixed in small brushstrokes as to be almost of the same feeling, and they seem to enhance each other. Severini brought the colours to tones of the same intensity. The shadows are green, and so are the bushes and trees in the background.

Arte: Zeuxis, can you show me again Fra Angelico’s "Coronation of the Virgin"?

Zeuxis, bringing the picture up on his screen: Sure, Arte. What is on your mind?

-> Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). The Coronation of the Virgin. Musée du Louvre. Paris. Ca. 1430-1435.

Arte: In Fra Angelico’s picture of the "Coronation of the Virgin", the Angelico showed many contrasting primary colours juxtaposed too, Zeuxis. Angelico, however, combined mostly bright blue with yellow-gold in this picture. These two colours form the overall hues and colour feeling of the painting. Yellow and blue are complementary colours, so they contrast very much and this contrast dominates the picture. Within the overall hues, he placed a few red and green colours, but these remained overall quite limited in surface. These colours remained soft, and far in scale from the other hues. Moreover, Fra Angelico often if not always separated blue and red, blue and green by thin whitish or yellow and gold zones. He used a harsh green in a Saint on the left, but then he juxtaposed not full red but a very diluted pink hue in the cloak of a neighbour.

Zeuxis: You are very observant, Arte. Soon you will be able to be a teacher yourself. Now, a last example!

Zeuxis shows a picture of Renoir.

-> Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). La Balançoire. Musée d’Orsay. Paris. 1876.

Zeuxis: Lastly, let us have a look at Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s picture "La Balançoire". Here, Renoir used contrasting colours in a very obvious way. The girl wears a yellow-white dress, and on this dress are bright blue flower motives. The man also wears a blue jacket. On the road are blue and yellow flowers. Blue and yellow are complementary colours, and Renoir could not have shown them in a more contrasting way. The contrast brings joy and energy of laughter and happiness in the painting.

Arte: I observed something else, Zeuxis! When one considers the three colours red, blue and green and combines these in paintings, then often a problem occurs. Red and green match harmoniously, also when they are used in different tones. Red and green are approximately each other’s complementary hue. But the complementary of blue is a shade of yellow. So, blue does not match well with red and green.

Zeuxis: That is very true, indeed, Arte. Rembrandt, for instance, used but little blue, and so did Titian in his later pictures. Discovering blue in a picture of Rembrandt and Titian is a real quest! Blue did not match with their ochre, red, brown, olive green colours.

Separating Contrasting Colours

Zeuxis: Chevreul wrote that when two hues did not accord well, they gained by separating them with white. White darkened somewhat both colours, and thus subdued the other hues.
Painters have used this principle often. We already saw an example in Georges Seurat’s painting as he brightened a small border around one dark colour (purple) to separate it from another non-complementary dark tint (green).
In the "Madonna of the Magnificat", Sandro Botticelli judiciously separated all hues by a bright yellow or golden tint, close to white.
Black particularly was good to separate hues, because for Chevreul black never produced a bad effect when associated between two luminous colours. For such separation, black was better than white. Black associated with sombre colours such as blue and violet or with broken tones of luminous colours produced harmony of analogy, and that was always an agreeable effect for Chevreul.
But Chevreul thought of his law of simultaneous contrast, so he added that black did not go well together in between two colours of which one is luminous and the other sombre. Black was then inferior to white as separation colour.

Zeuxis: A colour between white and black was grey. Chevreul told that grey never produced a bad effect in between two luminous colours. But these associations were rather dull and inferior to combinations of those colours with black and white. Grey in combination with dark colours, or with broken tones of luminous colours, produced harmony of analogy. But these did not have the vigour of black, even if grey at least separated to some extent the dark hues from each other. Chevreul considered that grey associated with two other colours, one of which is luminous and the other dark is better than white, because white could produce too strong a contrast of tone. And these combinations with grey were also better than with black, as black increased too much the proportion of darker tones.

Arte: You have in several of your lessons referred to Titian and Rembrandt, Zeuxis. These two painters discovered the force of dark tones to enhance the hue of rare patches of colours.

Zeuxis: Yes, Arte. Rembrandt discovered this effect very early as it might have been brought to him by the example of Caravaggio. When he was still a young man, Rembrandt's palette was very lively, maybe as lively evenas Fra Angelico's,but after the paintings of his youth, his style evolved to sombre backgrounds that brought extremely high power in but a few colours.
Titian, however, died before Caravaggio really made his masterpieces. Titian discovered the principle late in age, so we may regard this to have been the culmination of a powerful feeling for colours that grew stronger with age in a painter who did not have to prove anything anymore and that continued to experiment in ways of expression.

Chevreul’s advice on Harmony

Zeuxis: Chevreul furthermore remarked that in every composition of small extent, as in paintings, the colours as well as the objects represented should be distributed with symmetry. He gave the contrary composition the term "spotty", for want of a good distribution of objects. Through the study of harmony of colours, Chevreul had also reached concepts of harmony of composition.
He advised painters particularly to bring out a colour by contrast, in employing either light tones complementary or more or less opposed. And he proposed employing a broken tone of a hue complementary to a contiguous colour more or less pure. He proposed to the portrait painters to endeavour to find the dominating colour of the complexion of a sitter, and then to assort among the accessories such colours that impart value to the complexion of the figure in the portrait.
As a conclusion of the extensive investigations of Michel Eugène Chevreul into the effects of contiguous colours, one must state that the only association of two colours that improve strengthen, purify each other, is when the two colours are each others’ complementary.

Arte: A painter who did just that was Fra Angelico and that may be one reason for why I admire his pictures such as the "Coronation of the Virgin" so much. Another painter who was particularly sensitive to this effect, was Sandro Botticelli. We find in some of his paintings an almost obsessive interest to separate colours, but also to show the primary colours combined. An example of this is his "Madonna of the Magnificat".
These painters also preferred brilliant, pure hues, for such hues attract viewers immediately, because the mood of the picture is then cheerful.

Zeuxis: Chevreul made a remarkable stand when he stated that it was his conviction that the greatest artists could not free themselves from certain rules without compromising art itself. He wrote that in this connection, he certainly considered the arts of painting, which employed coloured materials in a state of infinite division. Chevreul was thinking of tapestry making. In tapestries one can mix thin threads of stuff together in various proportions, like one thread of black to every three of red.

Zeuxis halts here with his conservation. Arte, after a short while, looks at Zeuxis interrogatingly.

Arte: Was that it, Zeuxis, do I know everything there is to know about harmony?

Zeuxis: I was just thinking, Arte. No, there is another principle still to learn. We have to go back to a concept we also spoke of when we discussed the elementary shapes. That is the concept of balance.

Balance of coloured areas

Zeuxis: In the previous lessons we have developed various principles of harmony of colours. This was done independently of the shapes of the coloured areas. We merely discussed combinations of colours without taking into account the shapes of the areas of composition. Yet, the same rules or principles apply as we have explained in the chapter on harmony of composition, with the addition of the relative values of colours.
Harmony of forms lies in the repetition of approximately the same shapes or masses, whether simply repeated or rotated in a certain direction, or gradually modified in dimensions and overall shape. Symmetry can be applied, and generally balance needs to be conserved. Colours help in realising and emphasising these principles!
Just as balance and hence harmony is in the gradual displacements of forms, balance is in gradually evolving hues, saturation or intensity of the coloured areas. Symmetry can work on colours also. Dark areas can balance other dark areas, but dark areas can be surrounded by lighter areas, which they then bring in equilibrium.
Finally, principles of gravity can be exploited, by which areas of a certain shape and colour balance other areas of different characteristics.
The combinations of colours are endless, as is their use on areas of paintings.
Each hue has an inherent value of tone in relation to other colours. This can be best illustrated by looking at the colour wheel. Red is "darker" than orange, violet is darker than green. One could assign numbers of increasing brightness to this notion.
So, violet may have a value of 3 and yellow, its complementary, a value of 9. Orange would have a value of 8 and red of 6, whereas blue would have a value of 4 and green 6 also. Such numbers are entirely arbitrary, and subjective. But they can be used to explain the weights of areas in composition. A violet area would have to be much larger in dimensions to match in balance a yellow area. In fact, these are the values that Goethe suggested G97 . In general, in order to conserve balance in a picture, the darker areas will have to be larger than the lighter areas, and the pure hues of high intensity will also have to be confined to smaller surfaces of paint.
In order now for colours to balance each other, the shape of a violet patch should be three times smaller than a yellow surface. A blue surface should be two times larger than an orange one, whereas green and red areas balance each other when they are of equal size. The sizes of the surfaces should then stand in the proportions of 9 for violet, 3 for yellow, 4 for orange, 6 for red and green and 8 for blue in order for the colour surfaces to balance each other. Johannes Itten called this the "Contrast of Extension".

Arte: The concept can be seen in Wassily Kandinsky’s painting "Yellow-Red-Blue", Zeuxis! Please show that picture once more.

Zeuxis projects Kandinsky’s picture.

-> Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Yellow-red-Blue. Musée National d’Art Moderne. Centre Pompidou. Paris. 1925.

Arte: The dark blue area on the right is smaller than the yellow-brown shape of the left side. Kandinsky painted a well-delineated dark blue circle, and combined that with a large yellow-brown more diffuse area. In this way, the tonal value of a colour joins the forms in the concepts of general harmony of composition.
Kandinsky favoured the yellow hues, thereby forcing the blue even further to the background. He deliberately did not balance the colours, but brought the yellow area of the left to the forefront, and he pushed the blue closed circle to the cosmos.

Zeuxis: Colours in a painting can also carry a quality of weight that enters in the equilibrium of harmony. Dark colours are heavier that light colours, as the earth is darker than the sky. So, darker colours near the bottom of the panel appear to be more natural, give more a feeling of comfort to viewers. Putting dark colours on the top of a painting and lighter colours below, would not seem natural, and be a surprising effect! This inversion has rarely been used in paintings, since viewers have a natural feeling for what is low and high, also in colours.

Zeuxis presents a Renaissance picture on his screen.

-> Francesco Raibolini called Francesco Francia (1450-1517). Sacra Conversazione with Saints Petronius and Luke. The Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts. Vienna.

Zeuxis: Let me illustrate the concept of balance of colours with a picture of Francesco Raibolini, also called Francesco Francia, a Bolognese artist who worked around the turn of the sixteenth century. Francia lived in Bologna from around 1450 to 1517. The picture we will use is the "Sacra Conversazione with Saints Petronius and Luke". The picture is signed and dated 1513, and it is now in the Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna, Austria.

Zeuxis: We see the Madonna seated on a stone throne resembling an altar, holding the baby Jesus on her lap. This is a traditional "Sedes Sapientiae" picture, with Jesus standing on the seat of wisdom, which is his mother Mary. Mary is dressed in a deep blue maphorion and her robe is a very saturated red, which can also be found in the curtain behind her. Later on, Mary’s colours would evolve to blue and white, and the blue would be of a much lighter tone. But Francesco Raibolini used the darker, warmer colours of tradition. Saint Luke the Evangelist stands at the right of the picture, equally dressed in blue and red, but the colours are reversed in his dress. He wears a red cloak over a blue robe. This represents only a moderate, welcome mutation of the use of colours in the central figure of the Virgin. Saint Petronius stands to the left. He wears a grey robe and a golden cloak. We may believe that Francesco Raibolini did not want to break with the traditional representation of the Virgin, so she holds Christ at her right, which is to the left side of the picture.

Arte: We may believe that the painter wanted to continue the same colours on both sides. That meant painting Saint Luke in the colours of the Virgin and Saint Petronius in the colours of the child Jesus, thus in more bright colours such as in the yellow-gold and silver-grey that we see. We also might argue that the importance of a divinity like Jesus could easily balance the relative importance of a minor Saint like Petronius, and hence accept the balance of the lighter colours between Jesus and Petronius.

Zeuxis: That is right, Arte. But in using the darker, warmer colours to the right of the picture, and the brighter red and blue colours in the centre, as compared with the yellow hues on the left, Raibolini create a visual imbalance that draws the attention of the viewer to the heavy right, which is a side that is already enhanced for most people as a natural emphasis and preference of view. Raibolini might have reached better visual balance by painting Saint Luke in brighter and lighter tones, which would have better matched the colours of Petronius to reach more balance.

Arte: The painter was faced with a problem however, which was almost insurmountable. He wanted to express a link between Saint Luke and Mary. We see the head of the Virgin Mary neighing towards Luke. Raibolini wanted to show the bonds between the Virgin and Luke also in colours, painted them in the same colours, and thereby he drew the warmer colours to the right. He contrasted the warm temperature of the right part of the picture with the colder, more splendid but more intellectual, brighter colours of Saint Petronius, which could be linked to the concept of the divinity and thus to Jesus. The picture was hence balanced in ideas, in concept, and also in lines, but Raibolini had to leave a picture that in first impression and thus in emotion is visually asymmetric, unbalanced in colours.

Zeuxis: Yes, Arte. Wilhelm von Bezold once remarked that the whole mood of a picture could change by modifying once single colour. One cannot but wonder how Sandro Botticelli or Raphael might have handled the subject of Raibolini’s "Sacra Conversazione" in colours.

Arte: Now that we studied balance in areas of colours, Zeuxis, I would like t know what other writers and artists thought of that concept. Can you explain some more?

Zeuxis: I sure can, Arte, but I am growing tired of speaking so much. I’ll write you a letter and you can read all that at your ease then.

Arte: Sure, that is a good idea, Zeuxis. I can study some on my own now.

Zeuxis sighs and disappears. Arte remains alone, thinking about all she learned on colours.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: July 2010
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