Color Contrast vs. Unified Color

There is a far greater array of possibilities to achieve a visual impact in a painting with color than there is with only value, though if both are used together, the result will be captivating. In previous blogs I discussed the importance of value emphasis to create a focal point. The same rule applies to color. Colors, like music notes, can be harmonious, bold, dramatic, subtle, and complex.  If a painter knows how to play these “color” notes to their fullest potential, he or she can infuse his work with the same majestic qualities that are found in a musical masterpiece.  To achieve this however, he must understand that color needs to be balanced in a composition. 

There are two distinct entities in the orchestration of color; color contrast and unified color.  It is said that every variation of color can be achieved with the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue).  This is only true to an extent. It is a fine palette to use for the purpose of learning how to mix the secondary colors, (purple, orange and green) however, if the artist’s goal is to mimic, as closely as his capabilities will allow him, the infinite range of colors that are found in nature, the mixtures of the three primaries will never suffice.

In the previous blog I wrote about observing the reflective colors that are often found in shadows.  Below is a simple demonstration displaying how that can be used to vary or unify particular colors.  All of the color variations occur in the form shadow (shadow on the object) or the cast shadow (shadow beneath the object).  The effect of the light differs quite drastically based soley upon the color combinations within the shadows of each image.  In the top two images, the form shadow and cast shadow are similar in color which creates the illusion of a unified light.  The image to the left demonstrates a “warm” lighting effect, using mixtures of yellow and red to create an orange shadow mass.  The form shadow appears to have more of a yellow influence of color, and the cast shadow has more of a red influence of color. They could be labeled as yellow-orange and red-orange.  The variations occur with the influence of the two primaries, yellow and red, which, incidently are both used to mix orange.  These two variations are referred to as tertiary colors.  The top image on the right demonstrates the same effect using a yellow-green form shadow and blue-green cast shadow.

The two images on the bottom demonstrate a very different approach which aims to create a vibrant contrast between the form shadow and cast shadow.  On the left, orange is used in the form shadow and a bluish-green is used in the cast shadow. This creates a strong warm/cool color contrast which (in opposition to the top two images) distinctly separates the object from the cast shadow. On the right image the same rule applies, pairing a yellow-green form shadow with a reddish-orange cast shadow.


A well-balanced composition consists of portions of unified color as well as color contrasts.  A painting orchestrated with nothing but harsh color contrasts, becomes chaotic and overwhelming to look at.  The viewers eyes dont know where to focus, and soon he or she looses interest. The same is true of a painting composed with colors that have very little variation.  Though the ladder is perhaps less unappealing to view, the introduction of a select few vibrant colors in an otherwise chromatically unified painting can create a beautiful intensity.

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