What is Color Harmony In Art and How Do You Use It?

color harmony

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Imagine a painting that effortlessly captures attention, conveys emotions, and leaves a lasting impression on its viewers.

This is the magic of color harmony in art…

By mastering the art of color schemes, you can achieve these remarkable effects in your own artwork.

In this article, you’ll find out the key concepts and techniques of color harmony, revealing how different combinations of colors can create balance, tension, and unity. Whether you’re a painter, illustrator, or art enthusiast, understanding color harmony will elevate your creations to new heights.

Get ready to embark on a colorful journey as we unravel the secrets of this powerful artistic tool. Prepare to transform your art and engage your audience like never before.

What is Color Harmony?

Color Harmony is a strategy or component of Color Theory that uses specific combinations of colors to affect the viewer in some way, usually either by grabbing their attention or causing them to feel emotions.

These color combinations are called Color Schemes. They are based on the color wheel and are selected by placing different geometric shapes (triangle, rectangle, and/or lines) on the color wheel. These shapes can be moved around the color wheel to create combinations within the same color scheme or color harmony.

what is color harmony?

Color Harmony and the Color Wheel

There are several color wheels, but here we will use the common RYB (Red, Yellow, Blue) color wheel based on the primary colors most of us learned about in school.

The RYB color wheel is used by most Fine Artists (Painters, Drawers, Ceramicists, etc.). In contrast, the Red, Green, Blue (RGB) color wheel is used for images found on a computer or tv screen.

The RYB color wheel, also known as the Triadic Color Wheel, is made up of twelve hues, including three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors. You can create many different colors for your artwork using these twelve hues and adding white (tinting) or black (shading).

The color wheel and color harmony are important tools because they allow you to plan for your artwork so they can accomplish your goals.

color harmony and the color wheel
RYB Color Wheel

You may want the viewer to feel a certain emotion, like sadness, when they look at your painting. You may want a certain spot in your drawing to capture the viewer’s attention. Color harmonies will help you accomplish these goals.

Color harmony doesn’t mean your artwork will automatically feel peaceful, as the word might suggest. Color harmony refers to the fact that the colors “work” together instead of being randomly selected. You might want your painting to create a sense of tension, in which case you use a complementary color scheme (which we will discuss in a moment).

So, read on to discover how to elevate your drawings or paintings and build confidence in using color harmony.

You can check out this article for a more detailed explanation of Color Theory, Color Harmony, and the different color wheels.

Psychology of Color

Color can affect humans in very powerful ways. Think of traffic lights. The red light that means “Stop” is associated with fire, which from primitive times we learned not to touch.

The green light that means “Go” is associated with new growth, life, and progress.

These associations can be used in your art to control your audience’s subconscious using color psychology.

psychology of color

If your painting is about a sad woman, use a lot of blue throughout the painting.

If your drawing is of people having a good time, you might use lots of pinks, yellows, and purples.

Using colors and color harmony in your art sends hidden messages to the viewer’s subconscious. It supports or strengthens the messages or narratives of the people, events, or environments that are seen in your work.

Learning how to understand and use the tools of color harmony intentionally and effectively will make you a better artist and help you connect more with your audience.

To find other ways to improve your art, there are great Online Art Classes to help you grow!

Color Combinations and Color Schemes

color combinations and color schemes

There is not one emotion attached to each color scheme; rather, it is a combination of the subject matter, the style you use, and the color combinations.

It is also important to understand that colors are influenced by the other colors they are close to. Yellow may feel warmer when placed next to blue than adjacent to Red. This is called Context, and context has much to do with how we interpret the meaning of or emotional association with color.

Keep this concept in mind as you read about each color harmony.

Here we will look at some of art’s most commonly used color harmonies.

Warm and Cool Colors

Colors are often called either warm or cool, known as Color Temperature.

Warm colors often evoke associations with passion, happiness, danger, power, energy, and other attributes.

warm colors

In this artwork, Paul Gauguin uses the harmonious colors orange, red, violet, and purple to paint mangoes and flowers.

color harmonies in art
Still Life with Mangoes by Paul Gauguin

While these colors may not have looked like this in real life, he emphasized and changed certain colors to set a particular mood.

You might get a positive feeling of a summer afternoon and bountiful harvest.

Cool colors usually include blues, greens, and purples. Cool colors can be associated with coldness, sadness, calmness, growth, royalty, and other traits.

Cool Colors

In this woodblock print, Hokusai uses mostly blue, which, in context with the boats, suggests the coldness of the water as it is about to crash down on the people in the boats. If the water had been green, it might appear warmer, which may take away from the danger of the situation.

harmony color
The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai

Using cool and warm colors is an easy way to begin with color harmony.

Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic color harmonies are typically used to emphasize something. It means one color (or mostly one color) in different shades and tints of that color. This may make the subject matter feel bigger, more intense, or all-encompassing.

monochromatic colors

The Old Guitarist is a prime example of Picasso’s “Blue Period.” Using blue for everything except the guitar gives the feeling of intense and complete sadness.

which artist is known for using monochromatic colors in his works of art?
The Old Guitarist by Picasso

A monochromatic painting can include other colors; however, the dominant color usually makes up eighty to ninety percent of the artwork. The color in the guitar suggests that even an inanimate object is happier and more alive than the man.

Analogous Colors

An analogous color scheme uses three hues next to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors suggests stability, unity, serenity, or naturalness. Since all analogous colors are adjacent, their bonds appear stronger.

analogous colors

Fragonard uses the analogous colors Yellow, Yellow-Orange, and Orange in the example below for a strong, stable painting.

analogous harmonies
Young Girl Reading by Fragonard

Complementary Colors

The complementary colors are two dominant colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. The main complementary combinations are created by combining Blue-Orange, Yellow-Purple, and Red-Green paint colors. As you can see, these color harmonies include a primary and secondary color.

complementary colors

The complementary colors carry feelings of tension, contrast, and duality. In this color harmony, one of the two colors is usually dominant and the other subordinate. Perhaps counterintuitive, the color used in smaller amounts draws more of our attention.

In this abstract painting by Stuart Davis, the blue draws our eye more effectively than the orange and creates visual interest.

complementary color harmony examples
Colonial Cubism by Stuart Davis

Split Complementary Colors 

Split complementary colors include three colors. Instead of two colors directly opposite each other, as with complementary colors, split complementary color harmonies use the main color and the two colors on either side of its opposite.

split complemetary colors

For example, in this painting by Vincent Van Gogh, we see Red, and instead of pure green, there are Blue-Green and Yellow-Green. This strategy still has a little tension but is much more subtle than a pure complementary color scheme.

complementary color scheme paintings
Night Café Arles by Vincent Van Gogh

The addition of Yellow reduces the tension further. It is important to remember that color schemes aren’t hard and fast rules; there are usually additional colors in the artwork outside those of the color combination. These additional colors will affect how we interpret color harmonies and the artwork.

Triadic Colors

Triadic colors are also based on a triangle shape, like the split-complementary. However, in this case, the triangle is equilateral. Each color in this color harmony is equal distance from each other on the color wheel, with two hues between each.

triadic colors

Using colors evenly spaced from each other gives a sense of balance and stability.

In the paper cut-out pictured below by Henri Matisse, the triadic color scheme of Red, Yellow, and Blue is used effectively. As mentioned earlier, the RYB color wheel is also known as the

Triadic Color Wheel, which this artwork demonstrates.

which artist is known for using triadic harmony in his works of art
Icarus by Henry Matisse

Applying Color Schemes to Create Harmony in Your Art

To use color harmony in your art, it is essential to look at and assess other artists’ works for their use of color schemes. It is also good to practice creating small artworks with less detail and focus on color.

Creating a paint color mixing chart is a great way to understand how colors react with each other and how to create vibrant color palettes and a range of tints, shades, and colorful grays. An excellent article on color chart exercises will help you understand the basics.

The Zorn Palette or Limited Color Palette

Anders Zorn was a Swedish artist who often worked with just four colors: Titanium White, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, and Ivory Black. Using a limited palette like the Zorn Palette increases color harmony and helps you focus on color and color mixing.

limited color palette
Self-Portrait in Red by Anders Zorn

Think of it like training for a marathon wearing a backpack full of bricks. You will feel free and light when you run the real race without the backpack.

You can learn more about the Zorn Color Palette in this article.

Learning to mix the colors you need with a limited palette will likely be cheating when you can use a wider variety of tube colors.

Check out this article on oil painting palettes for more ideas on selecting and using color palettes.

Wrapping Up Color Harmony

This article taught you about color harmony and how it can improve your paintings or drawings by increasing visual interest.

While you’re motivated about color harmony in art, jump on over and check out this Color Theory Bootcamp Course from New Masters Academy.

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