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  • Writer's pictureEthan A. Hayes

A Study and Exercise in Achieving Harmony of Color

It has been believed by color theorists and philosophers of aesthetics since at least the 1800's that a proper harmony of colors lies in a proportional composite of pigments surfaces. How this harmony might be enacted has been attempted by many, if not by all, artists who work with color.

As pioneers in the early 1800's, Geothe and M. E. Chevreul both independently posited that this could be achieved with complementary color pairs, e.g. red and green et cetera. Chevreul argued that such pairs are complementarily harmonious because they neutralize each other toward grey. Allowing some success and progress in the science, the principle is the basis of the effect of 'simultaneous contrast' where two colors simultaneously amplify each other's differences in shade and tone. The contrast of these colors thereby allows for a strong, self-balancing harmony between them. This effect is consequently also partially responsible for the success of the Impressionist school, giving great power to those artists despite their otherwise vague or perhaps too romantic notions.

However, the identity of these contrasting pairs was not accurately calibrated. This errancy is evidenced in Simultaneous Contrast of Colors, where in 1839 Chevreul makes simple mistakes declaring the complementary of indigo (a deep blue tending toward purple) to be an amber color, rather than the more accurate yellow-green as easily proven. Goethe clarifies this no better, and the neurological science needed to posit the real mechanics of this psychological effect was not to emerge until decades later when Hering Ewald first pioneered color opponency theory in 1878.

Owen Jones, the great compiler of aesthetic prepositions, a contemporary of Chevreul, and a visitor to the master chemist's Gobelins dye works, noted this discovery. In his classic 1856 work, The Grammar of Ornament, under propositions 24-27, Jones explicitly summarized Chevreul by name. Jones' propositions can be found HERE for easy reference. Immediately prior to the Chevreul subsection, under proposition number 23, Jones makes a more curious hypothesis that indirectly illuminates the basis of this effect stating:

"No composition can ever be perfect in which any one of the three primary colors is wanting, either in it's natural state or in combination."

This is a radical thing to propose and deeply connected to the propositions that would immediately follow in his list, but as usual, Jones rarely cites his sources when it matters and makes no real explanation of the reasoning behind this premise. This is not grounds for it to be discarded, for with a small amount of teasing, it is revealed that this is just an extrapolation and novel expression of the law of simultaneous contrast with only a small amount of Jones' personal philosophy added.

Owen Jones, 1809 – 1874, British Architect and Designer

This means that the harmony of a contrasting pair such as red and green, under the law of simultaneous contrast, exists not because of the colors particularly, but rather because of their components. In subtractive color mixing, green is composed of blue and yellow. Red together with its complement green's constitute elements, blue and yellow, compose the three necessary primary colors to which Jones is ordering in preposition 23. Red:Green, Green=Blue:Yellow, Red:Blue:Yellow From here, some of Jones's other prepositions self-derived almost in the manner of Euclidean geometry, namely prepositions 20, 22, and most notably 19, perhaps the most radical of Jones's theories.

In preposition 19, Jones is so bold as to dictate precise proportions of each primary color pigment to be used to achieve this harmony, therein indicating blue, yellow, and red in the proportion of 8:3:5 (integral 16). Why his given proportion is not an even 1:1:1 is unexpected. How he precisely derives this proportion is unclear besides his stated comprehensive study of the best art of the ancients. Looking to Chevreul provides no further reasoning for this, as he dictated no three-color proportion at all, seemingly presuming that equal complementary pairs are harmonious; and Goethe for his part only suggests that the three primaries ought to be used together to enact this harmony, but gives no set recipe to do so.

Unfortunately, Jones did not provide any providing precisely calibrated identities of these colors, only their proportions. A. H. Munsell, a half century or so later in 1905, having read Chevreul and having been a student of the Jones school at least indirectly, sharply points out this particular defect. Employing Maxwell discs of spinning color, he derides in a scathing, almost bitter way the previous attempts of determining the correct proportion for harmony. Reworking the classic complementary pairs using the now-matured scientific knowledge on trichromatic vision, he joins red and cyan, green and magenta, and indigo with yellow as new pairs. This does in fact seem to be more accurate, but here Munsell's dripping sourness might be too pessimistic, but also not going far enough.. By the time of Munsell's writing, trichromatic color theory the basis of these new pairs was already soon to be out of date.

A section of Munsell's color tree

For over a hundred years now, schools of optics have debated how this harmony works with respect to the human physiology of vision. Some favor. as Munsell did, a trichromatic view while others favor something more like Hering Ewald's opponency theory. Color opponency is the more sophisticated of these two whereby the nervous system computes color pairs immixably as the signal opponents of one another, but the exact identity of these color spectra and concerning opponency theory in general is still an area of active scientific research.

Instead of this highly scientific route, let this science go back to some of Jones' other propositions that might lead to a more grounded and holistic way forward in this endeavor. Under proposition 4, perhaps Jones' most quotable, he writes:

"True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want."

This proposition perhaps provides a more appropriate frame with which to consider the appetite of the eye for harmony. Ewald, in defining this harmony as a measure of opponent signals, fits very well into Jones's theory, where the neurological impulses are these very appetites. And furthermore, such as in the essays of Herman Weyl on symmetry, one can see many other disciplines of sciences such as mathematics and physics find and integrate a similar idea of computable transcendent harmony in beauty. Herein it can be seen how one might consider the harmony of colors as a harmony of something like relationally computed changes in the sense impulse. With such a guiding philosophy, new science in color theory can be directed with some confidence in determining how the human mind precisely computes and processes these perceptions.

A basic diagram of trichromatic-opponent colors

But when one reflects on Jones' 8:3:5 proportion one indeed only wonders what causes the proportion to deviate from a neater, equal, and perhaps more predictable 1:1:1 ratio of blue, red and yellow, this perhaps being an error from using the non-biological blue-red-yellow scheme, or another artifact of the optical organs. Such an odd proportion might even suggest an arbitrary system of sense perceptions. As an exercise and experiment, let a calculation briefly be attempted of a proportion of colors that produce a neutralized harmony both using computed optical light using a computer and with physical pigments.


Using the classic, yet antiquated scheme of blue, yellow and red as primaries, one digitally calculates a proportion of 8:3:4 (integral 15) with 95% accuracy, strikingly close to the 8:3:5 (integral 16) dictated by Jones.

Using the scheme of trichromatic vision, approximating that of the eye and computer monitors, blue, green, and red, one digitally calculates a proportion of 6:3:4 (integral 13) with 99.3% accuracy, again very similar to Jones if allowing for the remix of the constituted colors

Using the scheme of most color printers, the presumed exact opposite of trichromatic vision, that of cyan, yellow, and magenta, one calculates a proportion of 6:4:5 (integral 15) with 98.2% accuracy, again seemingly similar if allowing for the remixed colors.

Using the physical pigments of Ultramarine Blue (PB29), Permanent Yellow (PY35), and Cadmium Red (PR108) we produce a near true grey with the proportion of 6:6:4 (integral 16). Other mixes of strong primary pigments produce similarly varying proportions. This, a testament to the perienneal unreliability of the classic paint pigment system so derided by Munsell, only seems to suggest the inherent delicacy of yellow pigments and the relative strength of many red and blue pigments, as this is wildly at variance from computer-generated results where color tincture is equilibriated. This data seems useless for any other conclusion other than that Jones assuredly did not derive his ratios experimentally with physical pigments. Jones' non-1:1:1 ratio might be a true measure of the native vibrancy of colors when adjusted for strength of pigment tincture. This difference of native vibrancy of colors is well documented by both Chevreul and Munsell, where yellow is also noted as a light and unusually vibrant color.

Without the use of computers, armed only with the collective instincts of the ancient masters, Jones correctly approximated a harmony of color despite his ignorance. He seemed to have been on to something, but due to the complexity of biological systems, something not able to be fully explained at this time. It would be valuable to determine why the mind processes these color impulses differently and how the knowledge of these differences might be utilized to advance the state of the art.

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