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How to Achieve Color Harmony With the Mother Color Technique

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

The mother color technique unifies the color scheme of your painting and creates color harmony. - Image: La Tamise à Charing-Cross de Claude Monet, 1903

The mother color technique unifies the color scheme of your painting and creates color harmony. - Image: La Tamise à Charing-Cross de Claude Monet, 1903

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.

Let's look in detail into each stage of the painting process using this harmonizing color technique. The steps are:

  1. Pick a mother color
  2. Pre-mix including a bit of it in all colors on your palette
  3. Tone your canvas using the mother color
  4. Paint your subject

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Haystacks, end of Summer - Monet, 1891

Haystacks, end of Summer - Monet, 1891

Haystacks-at-sunset-frosty-weather - Monet, 1891

Haystacks-at-sunset-frosty-weather - Monet, 1891

Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) by Claude Monet, National Gallery of Scotland, Oil on canvas, 65.00 x 92.00 cm, 1891

Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) by Claude Monet, National Gallery of Scotland, Oil on canvas, 65.00 x 92.00 cm, 1891

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

Photo I took of Joe Lombardo's palette while demonstrating the mother color technique.

Photo I took of Joe Lombardo's palette while demonstrating the mother color technique.

Mother color painting demo by Joe Lombardo. Follow link to see Lombardo's website.

Mother color painting demo by Joe Lombardo. Follow link to see Lombardo's website.

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.

Color wheel

Color wheel

© 2015 Robie Benve

Comments

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 15, 2017:

Thanks a lot Rachel!

Rachel Magnusson on November 14, 2017:

Lovely article, thank you for sharing this technique.

RTalloni on November 16, 2015:

How about that! :) Whoo Hoo! :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 16, 2015:

Do you mean the REAL James Gurney stopped by and left a great comment??? Well, I am truly humbled and thankful. When you read books of famous artists that give you ahah moments of deep learning, they become almost unreal, some kind of sacred geniuses. Finding a comment from one of them on my article: priceless. :)))))

James gurney on November 12, 2015:

Great post, and thanks for the shout-out!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 11, 2015:

Hi Susan, You are right, this technique presents some extra challenges when using acrylics, because the pre-mixed colors tend to dry up on you. Here are some possible solutions to that problem: 1. Add a retarder to your acrylic paints, this will slow down drying time. 2. Make sure you keep the paint moist by vaporizing water on it often. 3. You can use the acrylic OPEN from golden, they have a much slower drying time than regular acrylics.

Hope this helps! Thanks for stopping by and Happy Painting!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 10, 2015:

Yep, never better than experiment yourself, especially when it comes to art! :) Thanks a lot RTalloni for your feedback on my latest hub. Appreciated. :)

Susan Wade on November 09, 2015:

Very interesting article, I'll try the mother color out with my acrylics, even though it's a little challenging to do a lot of pre-mixing, they dry quickly. Nevertheless I'll give it a try!

RTalloni on November 09, 2015:

Thanks for an interesting read on the unifying effect of using a mother color. Have to agree on Monet. Now I want to go experiment... :)