How to Achieve Color Harmony With the Mother Color Technique
What Is Color Harmony?
Color harmony is achieved by using colors that work well together visually, like notes of a good piece of music. They are pleasant to the eye and create a beautiful and enjoyable painting.
Harmonious colors are somehow related; looking at a color wheel, you find them next to each other.
Steps of the Mother Color Technique
Using the mother color technique implies that you pick a color and mix a little bit of it in every paint color you use in that particular painting, including white.
This unifies the color scheme of your painting and creates color harmony.
#1 Pick a Color
How to Choose the Color
The hue you pick as your mother color is very important because it will determine the look and mood of your painting.
You can choose potentially any color. Some artists scrape the leftover paint from their palette, mix it all together, getting some kind of a grayish color, and use that as the base color for the next painting.
I personally prefer brighter colors. My recommendation is to pick the mother color so that it helps to enhance that particular painting. I suggest you pick the color of an important element in your composition (i.e. focal point) as mother color.
For future mixing purposes, it's easier if you pick a color straight out of a tube. Since every time you run out of a color and need to squeeze out more paint you need to mix a bit of mother color into it, it would make it much more complicated if you had to mix that too.
Since this technique implies that you are also toning your canvas with it, you can let little specks of the base color come through all around your painting, tying it all together. Also, having the ground color already painted simplifies quite a bit the painting of objects of that color.
Prepare by Pre-Mixing Your Palette
This technique requires some work ahead of time to pre-mix your palette.
- Squeeze out your regular paint colors.
- Pick your mother color.
- Add to each paint glob a small amount of mother color, mixing with a palette knife.
Tip: Dots as Visual Reminder
Spread Dots of Paint Throughout Your Palette
As a visual reminder of your painting goal, and also to make future mixing easier, squeeze out several little dots of pure mother color, out of the tube, in your palette’s mixing surface and preserve them as visual reminder that you are supposed to mix in some of that color every single time you get paint from any tube. (See photo at the end of article).
Note: while this is a great way to proceed with oils; when using acrylics, since they dry much quicker, you may not want to squeeze out too much paint. The small dots might be dry by the time you need them. Squeeze out just a couple of acrylic paint dots, as a visual reminder.
Tip: Don't Overdo It
Watch Out: Don’t Mix Too Much Mother Color Into Everything
Only mix a small amount of mother color in each paint color. Be careful not to overdo it.
The risk here is to obtain lots of color harmony but to lose value contrast and temperature contrast between the different paint colors. Those contrasts are critical for good results in any painting.
#3 Tone Your Canvas
Tone Your Canvas With the Mother Color
When using this technique, I always start by toning my support with the mother color. This provides a huge help in unifying the look of the painting.
When the canvas is covered with the toning color, still wet, I wipe off the lightest areas of my composition with a rag, to start arranging value masses very loosely.
These wiped areas will still retain be slightly colorful but will be much lighter in value.
Start Painting in Your Usual Style
A couple of perks to keep in mind while you are painting your subject.
- If while you paint you leave some of the ground color peek through the brushstrokes, all over your painting, that will help unifying the piece and creating harmony.
- When you get to painting elements of the ground color, your job is already half done.
What is your favorite painting medium?
When I Think of Mother Color I Think of Monet
Since the first time I've heard about the this technique, it's always reminded me of Monet's paintings.
In particular the Haystacks (or wheat stacks) series, in which Monet painted the same subject at different times of the day and/or different seasons. In these paintings, Monet's goal was to show how the color and direction of light and the atmospheric conditions influence color and light of the subject.
Though I have never come across this information in writing, I am pretty sure Monet used the mother color technique in his paintings.
Look at the images below. You can clearly see the color harmony created by the unifying effect the color of light has on the whole painting. That unified effect is exactly what you aim for when using the mother color technique. To learn more about color harmony and how to obtain it, read this article.
I Learned It From Joe Lombardo
The first time I heard about the mother color technique, I was taking a plein air workshop with Ohio artist Joseph Lombardo. He explained the technique in great detail and proceeded to paint a demo.
I was fascinated. I loved this technique so much that I ended up buying his demo painting, as a visual reminder of what to aim for, and because I liked it a lot.
Below are photos of Joe's mother color palette and painting. Every glob of paint includes some radiant magenta as mother color already mixed in, and several dots of radiant magenta are spread throughout the palette, as visual reminder and to make further mixing more convenient.
A Painting With Radiant Magenta as Mother Color, by Joe Lombardo
Tip: Use a Color Wheel for Reference
Familiarity With the Color Wheel Helps
Making yourself familiar with the color wheel really helps when mixing colors.
To learn more about the color wheel and how to use it during color mixing, read this article.
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Robie Benve