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Working with Under-Painting and Color Harmony

Posted by Neadeen Masters, CDA on 5th May 2016

South American Landscape by Frederic Church, 1873

In the painting of the South American Landscape above, Church paints a luminous golden light that bathes his entire composition and creates a harmony that is breathtaking!

So too, in the painting of red plums below, artist Levi Wells Prentice paints a warm earthy still life composition that's naturally harmonious. Why? 

The colors of the brown paper bag, the wooden table top, the fruit and the green background all share a common tone and because of this, they work well together. The colors blend like sweet voices in a choir, each hitting the correct note! The artist has achieved a level of successful color harmony that makes the overall painting pleasing to the eye. 

Common colors do the trick to pull it all together in each painting...

Bag of Plums

On another note... Have you ever looked at a painting and thought something seemed out of sync? For some reason color combinations didn't jive? If you have, perhaps the lack of color harmony created the confusion, perhaps you couldn't put your finger on it...but you knew something was out of whack! While some artists do this deliberately to evoke specific reactions from their viewers, most realists painters strive for some level of color harmony in their work. Let's take a look at this subject of harmony.

So what's color harmony anyway?

Color harmony is the unifying or contrasting factor between color relationships in a painting. The job of the artist is to form these color relationships for certain effects.

One way is through the placing or mixing of various hues, tones, tints and shades of colors so they either work together, or create interesting contrasts. Never forgetting the ultimate goal is creating combinations that are aesthetically appealing.

But how does the artist do this?

  • Color Schemes: A popular method is using certain groups of colors called color schemes from the standard 12 hue color wheel. These groups of colors go well with each other when used is various proportions, contrasts, values and intensities. They help the artist manage color relationships in a more controlled manner.
  • Under-paintings: Another way is to use the under-painting. This is a layering method where artists paint the first layer of the painting with one or more colors that will create a unifying foundation for subsequent colors to follow. This type of underpainting is often done with earth tones, or gray tones but certainly not limited to these alone.

For Example:

In the fruit under-painting below, Yellow Ocher and Burnt Sienna are used to suggest overall color temperature and analogous color harmony. The two earth colors also add brilliance to the final layers of color that will describe the finished orange, red apples and green leaves. The rich warm hues of the under-painting create a common color thread that enhances overall harmony.

What colors do I choose for my Under-paintings?

Popular colors used for under-paintings are Burnt Umber, Raw Umber, and Golden's Yellow Ochre, Yellow Oxide, Burnt Sienna and combinations of others that are mixed to lean towards certain hues such as green, red, or blue.

Other pigments used are some of the popular transparent pigments like Golden's Red Iron Oxide, Transparent Yellow Iron Oxide, or Quinacridone Gold, and Quinacridone Burnt Orange, etc...

Painting TIP: Some artists will mix some of the transparent pigments like the Quinacridone hues with Burnt Umber, or Raw Umber or Burnt Sienna to create more translucence. These mixes are quite beautiful, especially if allowed to show through the subsequent layers in the final painting.

In second fruit under-painting below, the color changes are obvious. Rather than using a yellow/orange combination as above, Burnt Umber and Raw Umber that has a greenish undertone are used for a completely different effect. Colors are cooler relative to the yellow/orange combination above. One can see that the end result will be harmonious, but in a different way!

The goals of the under-painting are quite varied

Not only to create color harmony and suggest the color temperature, but the under-painting can add a high degree of excitement and contrast when complementary colors are used.

For Example - In a landscape with dominant green hues, one might use a rich Burnt Sienna or Red Iron Oxide under-painting as the first layer. This contrasting color will become another important element in the painting, adding a great deal of interest and pizzazz to the final rendering!

In the landscape painting above, a Burnt Sienna under-painting adds warmth for the late evening shadows and light. 

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