Sunday, March 2, 2008

Color Gradations

Like a glissando in music, a color gradation moves smoothly from one note to another. Gradations can be very beautiful in purely abstract terms. They take you from one hue to another, or from a light color to a dark color, or from a dull color to a saturated one. Let’s have a look at some examples.

This gradation goes from a dark desaturated blue to a pale desaturated yellow. So it shifts in hue and value, but not very much in saturation.

This one is fairly similar, but it moves from a neutral (or grayed down) dark to a warm light tone, passing through a slightly more saturated oranges in the middle of its range.

Here are three gradated strips of color. The top one changes primarily in hue as it goes quickly away from a dull red-orange and gradually arrives at a saturated blue, without changing very much in value. The middle one shifts darker in value, and the third one moves in and around related pinks and oranges before arriving at a paler pink.

Now that you’ve seen some gradations out of context, let’s see where they came from. The first color strip comes from the right side of this painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Note that the brownish color of the trees also gradates as it moves away from the bright center of light. When two color sets move together, I call it a "parallel gradation."

The second color gradation appears in the sky of this painting by Maxfield Parrish. The stone wall also gradates very slightly from warmer at the top to cooler at the base.

The group of three strips are all taken from a single Gerome painting of Arab horsemen. This painting is full of gradations, many more than I’ve shown. It owes much of its luminosity to the skillful use of changing color.

John Ruskin observed in Modern Painters (1843) that a gradated color has the same relationship to a flat color as a curved line has to a straight one. He noted that a painting of Turner—and that nature herself—contains movement or gradation of color both on the large and the small scale:

“I wish to insist…that nature will not have one line nor color, nor one portion nor atom of space without a change in it. There is not one of her shadows, tints, or lines that is not in a state of perpetual variation.”

Gradations don’t just happen. They take planning. In some future post we’ll explore some techniques for painting gradations and look at ways to use them in composition.

More from the Art Renewal Center database on Friedrich, Parrish, and Gerome.

Tomorrow: Backs of Heads


Jacob Collins said...


I am continuing to love your posts. You bring up so many different ideas that i had never heard about or thought about as well as ones that have taken me years to stumble onto myself.

Thanks so much.


Maria Mercado said...

I think I've learned more from reading your posts than I have in all my art classes, dating back from high school. Thank you.


Em said...

Beautiful subtleties you're pointed out. Very instructive, thank you.