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Color Fundamentals

Lesson 6 of 22

What is Color Harmony?

Mary Jane Begin

Color Fundamentals

Mary Jane Begin

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Lesson Info

6. What is Color Harmony?

Lesson Info

What is Color Harmony?

Now color charts are also a useful tool of referencing or establishing all the colors that you can create. The thing with color charts, now this is an assignment that I give my Color Works students, that's the name of the class as RISD. And there's usually a lot of groans when I say, "Okay, we're doing a color chart." And they're like, (groans). And then I say, "Listen, this is gonna be the assignment" "that you'll be most glad that you've done, for a reason." And they always come back and say, "That was so much fun." "It was therapeutic, it was very relaxing," "and I know more about color because I literally," "I created a like, mathematical chart." I have 12 colors, or nine colors, and then I cross pollinated them across this grid to see what are my oranges, purples, grays, browns. And using the colors in different quantities. Maybe a lot of blue and a little red in this purple. And maybe there's a lot more red than blue in another version where those two colors come together again. ...

So the chart, if you label it, is really useful. And I recommend that students who do this, it's so easy. Anyone can do this. You just need tape, paper, and some kind of paint materials. Or you can do it digitally. You can select out colors, and then cross them, and see, what do they look like? You can vary opacity levels. You can vary the way you lay down the color. You can mix the color on a surface, or you can lay a color down, and lay another color on top of that, if it's like wet media. So there's lots of ways to make color charts, but this is a really useful tool, and I highly recommend. If someone's never done it, they should absolutely try it. And it's fun. Yeah. All right, so just so I make sure I understand, and folks at home too. Yeah. How do I go about making these? Okay. Again, please. So, in this case, these were watercolor and acrylic. So it's wet media. They took a large sheet of water color paper, and I'll show, I actually soaked and stapled the board so I can explain it further when I show it. But they wet the paper, put it on a board, Homasote or plywood, stapled the edges, and then either put it on a fan, or just let it dry overnight. That's called stretching watercolor paper. And what's good about that is when it dries it's super flat. If you've ever watercolored or acrylic, or wet media, if you don't do that, it gets all, like wrinkly, and it's very unpleasant. So, it's a super flat surface. They then would use a ruler and a pencil and just draw out their squares or rectangles. Then they would lay a little, thin piece of tape, or whatever size their tape is, between each of these so that when they laid the color down, it wouldn't spread into the other boxes. Once the tape is laid down, they've drawn their boxes out, then they would choose let's say, alizarin crimson, chamomile, all the different colors from their watercolor or acrylic set of two colors. They would then put a piece of, let's say let's pick this one. A little piece of red down, let it dry, and then maybe a little piece of this yellow color right on top of it. And that's the way the chart proceeds. In some cases they might have said, "Oh instead of putting down the yellow," "letting it dry, putting the red on top" "I think I'll just stir it up on my pallet and test that." And the interesting thing about that is mixed colors are more neutral because they harmonize more evenly than colors that are sitting like a sandwich, one on top of each other, and they tend to vibrate more and they figure that out when they do that chart. But that's the way they proceed and it's not the only way to do a chart but that's how all of these were done. Does that make sense? Yeah thank you, so then you have those to reference as you move forward with your illustration and you can hopefully remember how much you mixed or how much you layered. Sometimes people will make several charts, this is my really, and I ask them to do that, this is my opaque chart, my acrylic, my watercolor chart. I had one student, he had like 20 colors. His chart is huge. He's actually been bringing it to class every week, all the other students are like, "Jordan, do you have your chart?" Because he made like the best chart ever, he labeled everything so they're like "How did I make that green?" "Oh yeah, it's with chamomile yellow and phthalo blue." That's because cobalt blue and, they're gonna make very different blues. My shirt's a different blue than your shirt, mine's a cool purple blue yours is a blue-green blue, both primary, but they will not make the same purples for example, and I can show that. One will make purple, the other makes brown. So that's if you use this reference it's really great, just leave it in a studio tacked to your wall. It helps you to remember because we don't have very good memories for color. Now you can see here I have an underpinning of purple. I always use grounds for my work as I said. It's a way to bring the colors together no matter what the material is that I'm using. In this case for the My Little Pony the Dragon's on Dazzle Island, I decided that it needed to be a cool ground but the challenge was I didn't want it to be blue because if it were blue it wouldn't react to the color I decided the dragons needed to be, which is a kind of minty green color. It wasn't gonna react particularly well to the red and the yellow of this main character. So I was like, well I need a cool color, but it can't really be a blue because there'll be no reaction. I chose a purple, a blue purple, a little more purple than my shirt because the purple would react to yellow, compliment to the green, a compliment, too much of what's in the scene, almost all these colors will react to that purple. So I have to think logically about what will have a reaction, but will also send the message or expression for the piece. I just wanted to walk through how I do this, how I make my books, how I work. I start with basically a linear sketch, it's all line work and this is on usually tracing paper because I can make changes underneath the trace. I then take my final sketches and I print them onto my watercolor paper. I take them to Kinko's or Staples, or at Wristy we have a printing service that's really good. I print it on this surface because it's so time consuming to draw these pictures that to have to redraw I might change something unintentionally so by printing it I know it's exactly what I made and it'll stay the same. I let that ink cure overnight on the surface of the watercolor paper. And then it doesn't move, it's under there. It's solid when I go to paint. I also make a little color study. I had to figure out for this scene which direction the light would come from so I made this quick little pastel and then I erased out to see like, where's the light coming from. I also start to test the ground, should it be more blue, more purple, more what, and that's when I decided purple would be better. And in this case I have that picture, this drawing which has been printed on the watercolor paper, soaked and stretched so that it's nice and flat, and then I lay with watercolor the whole tonality of this purple blue color and that's where I start. And then I use what's called, and I'll show this in the demonstrations so it won't be like, "What do these words mean?" It's just called a scrub brush, it's really just a stiff bristle oil painting brush that you haven't used for oils. You need to it to be clean, needs to be fresh. And because it's stiff it actually pulls watercolor right off the surface of the paper. It doesn't go back to pure white but it gives you a nice opportunity to see the value range. You can also sponges, you can use tissues to blot the color off, but for me starting with value is really important because it gets my head in the right space. The light and the value first, okay, where am I going. And that's why I started with value at the beginning of the keynote, because I think it's the easiest thing to think about. And that's exactly what I was kind of wondering earlier was where do you start, which of those elements do you need to focus on first. Value. Looking forward to seeing you doing that in action too. Yeah, I figured out it was my way of deconstructing color when I first started because it was such a confusing subject. I had to pull it apart and figure out a system that would make sense. So I start with value and then I start to lay down the colors and basically I start to see what the color reaction will be and I chose the green color of this dragon to react to that purple blue. I start to think about the warmth of the light, like there's cool secondary light hitting this form, what we called ambient light. But the warm light from this side is the most important light and it's reacting to the coolness of the background. So I start to think about the temperature of light, the local color of each section. This is all watercolor, basically mostly watercolor at this stage of the game. And I start to fine tune things like contrast or the scales and where are eyes going to go, which is the focal point, which is where the characters are, so that's the highest level of contrast in this picture for all the issues we've talked about. And I just wanted to show that when I'm painting I typically do a couple things, I use a lot of reference material to make sure that I'm in the palette zone that I need to be in. I use mix media, I use pastels, watercolor, whatever needs to be used at that moment. Sometimes I don't think ahead of time. I'll need something and I'm like, "I've gotta use the pastel now." So I have to let it be intuitive. You can't program everything. I also tape my pictures, and we'll do this too later, to create a framework for that image. If there's no edge you can't really know how the composition is working in terms of the balance of all the shapes of color, so without the edge that can be really confusing. So I always tape it, also it keeps it tidy when you pull the tape off you get this really nice clean edge, it's almost my favorite part. Pulling that tape off. And then that's the finished piece. And you can see I'm following through, it's a very cool realm, it has to be because of the story calling for that, that was the expression, it's a very cool place, there's a conflict, and as you look at this, again focusing on the eye and the horns one tends to go to this zone here, this motion, but be pulled to these vibrant contrasting colors. But this is the first place I want you to land is the mother dragon, to look at her, and again just like our wall, follow the shapes, not a level of contrast that's too high but kind of the lines of color are pulling you in this direction and then landing you back down the tail is meant to pull you back here. So it's the drawing working in concert with the color, it's not just about the color, the drawing has to do its work to move your eye about the piece. How long, I'm just sitting here wondering, how long does something like this take you to bring to life? It depends on the picture, but this particular picture probably took me about, well from start to finish, I'd say about, not quite two weeks from drawing to finish painting, the painting itself probably took about a week to a week and a half to do because it was complex. This particular book I did faster, I did it in six months, this is probably one of the most complex pictures, but it's all watercolor and pastel, a little bit of colored pencil.

Class Description

This class will give you an overview of color principles and demonstrate how to apply them. Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department. 

In this class she covers: 
  • The elements of color, including value, temperature, saturation, hierarchy, complements, light, harmony, and contrast 
  • The use of color complements in image making 
  • The relationship of color to the medium and expression 

Through a series of demonstrations, you’ll learn how to work with color and ultimately make better color decisions. This class covers color theory foundations that applies to all image making, in design, art, illustration, photography, and beyond.


Anna Kotzè

I really liked the informal demonstrations and I also liked the way she set out her pallet with warm and cold colors. This was not only an informative class but inspiring. The casual and relaxed working style, encourage playfulness. Thank you for an awesome class.


I’ve had foundations in many of the color instruction that was presented here so the information was a very good revisit. I also think it was explained better in this presentation than in the other training I’ve had. I enjoyed listening to the lecture, thankfully they weren’t drawn out until you want to stop listening. The demonstration was best after we moved off the charcoal drawing (although that was interesting to watch) because using the paints really brought home to me the application some of the lessons learned. I wish that part would have been more robust so that all of the elements in the lecture could have been directly called out in the demonstration. The instructor was most effective when not trying to multitask too much. Overall, I recommend this course.

Robin B.

I had previously learned basic color theory, but this instructor took my knowledge beyond with layered instruction about value-contrast-complements-hierarchy, etc., and she does it in such a fun way with her own examples of work and great stories! I like her poise and confidence and think this series is a terrific value.