Color Harmony In Painting

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  • On 9th April 2015

Creating Color Harmony In A Painting

Imprimatura, meaning “first paint layer”, has been a means of beginning paintings since the early Renaissance and particularly in Italy. The purpose of the Imprimatura is threefold. First, the wet ground of paint influences all additional colors worked into it with the brush. This is helpful for us to begin to develop the value structure of the painting early on. An Imprimatura may also be allowed to dry before working over it. In this way, color may be layered transparently over the dry ground allowing the luminescence of the ground to shine through the layered colors above. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Imprimatura wet or dry helps the artist to develop overall color harmony as added colors mixed into wet paint or layered over dry partake in the value and color of the “first paint layer”.

In addition, the Imprimatura reveals itself softly in the mid-to-dark tones of the painting, adding luminosity to those areas and keeping them from sinking into “dark holes” of the picture.

Now here’s an early prognosis of a case where the Imprimatura may be justly prescribed. I have often started a painting on a stark white canvas. As I have begun developing shapes, I am usually left with the white spaces between shapes. As my paintings favor a middle to dark overall tonality, I generally feel these white strips start interfering with the particular tonality and mood which I am trying to establish. So, little by little as I work along, I begin to cover these white areas or blend two adjacent areas together to avoid the surface being “ruptured” by intrusions of glaring white. Here is where the Imprimatura is invaluable and helps to avoid much unnecessary fussing with blending to bring the parts of the picture together.



The painting above was begun using ArtRage’s Paint Tube Tool to quickly lay on a heavy impastoed ground of Naples Yellow across the entire surface of the picture. You can see remnants of the unblended ground still showing through at the top and bottom edges. With a Thick Oil Brush, I began working deeper color into the very thick and pasty ground. Of course, adding a color into the wet ground has the effect of diluting its color. This is helpful for avoiding strong color “falling out” of the value and color structure of the painting at the outset. The added color becomes muted, neutralized or grayed by the wet ground.

Most of the brushwork here has been wet-on-wet. ArtRage also has an excellent Insta-Dry Feature which will dry the paint surface beneath. This can be useful for accentuating strong edges which you want to stand out against an adjacent swath of paint. I have not used the Insta-Dry Feature here, however. I strove for an overall unity of surface and color which, I believe, the wet Imprimatura has helped to achieve.



Traditionally earth colors have been used for Imprimatura grounds – umbers, ochres, terra verts. However, we need not limit ourselves if we feel the need for a stronger colored ground. It’s important to remember that the Imprimatura ground will strike the dominant color note throughout the painting from start to finish. So best to keep in mind what kind of mood you want to establish in the picture before choosing your ground. The Nabi painter Édouard Vuillard was especially fond of painting on unprimed corrugated cardboard of a medium raw umber tone. In many of his paintings the color is quite simple. He has used silvery cool grays to contrast with the warmth of the ground thus producing a subtle yet viable range of warm and cool tones throughout his paintings. In his painting above, notice how Vuillard has used a warm Imprimatura of medium value, in this case the dry surface of the tawny cardboard which he so favored using. Vuillard’s many paintings and drawings on cardboard have caused some concern for archivalists. The sulfur dioxide in the paper pulp eventually will lead to deterioration. Perhaps Vuillard never considered this….or perhaps he didn’t care. I know that as soon as I’ve finished a painting, I lose interest in it and seldom give a thought to its future. After all, creating anything is a voyage of process and involvement and not a final destination! What do you think regarding the future of your achievements?

I’d appreciate hearing from any or all of you and any comments you might have to share.

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1 Comment

  1. clyde · April 10, 2015

    Thanks, Alyce. I’m happy you are painting!