Striving for color harmony is essentially a pursuit of beauty.
The enjoyment of colors, individually or in harmony, is experienced by the
eye as an organ, and it communicates its pleasure to the rest of the man.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There is a theory in design that people will respect and care for surroundings and objects that they find beautiful, and will disdain and neglect, even damage, those that are unappealing. On some level, the pursuit of happiness always includes the pursuit of beauty.
In Search of Beauty
Beauty is the quality of an object or experience that gives pleasure to one or more of the senses. A color can be beautiful, or a sound, or a scent. Delight in the presence of beauty is as natural to the human condition as breathing.
Harmony is the happy condition that follows when two or more different things are sensed together as a single, pleasing experience. Harmony is perceived as complete, continuous, and natural.
It is intuitive; a feeling that things are just as they should be. In a harmonious situation everything is in balance; everything belongs. Happy families live in harmony; barbershop quartets sing in harmony; a hermit lives in harmony with nature. Harmonious experiences are without gaps or surprises.
Color harmony occurs when two or more colors are sensed together as a single, pleasing, collective impression.
A single color can be beautiful, but it cannot be harmonious. Harmony requires a grouping of elements.
A key characteristic of harmonious colorings is that they seem effortless and uncontrived. Each color seems natural in its relationship to the others. No color seems out of place.
To paraphrase Goethe, the colors in harmonious compositions seem to “belong together according to our senses” (Goethe, 1971).
A color does not have to be pleasing on its own to be used well. It is perfectly possible to dislike certain colors and still use them in harmonious ways. Someone who asserts that a certain color is “awful” is expressing a personal taste, like a preference for vanilla over chocolate, or jazz over opera. No color is inherently “bad.” It is the relationship between the colors in a composition to each other that creates color harmony, not the colors themselves.
Color harmony – a definition
Johannes Itten defined color harmony simply, as “the joint effect of two or more colors” (Itten, 1961).
But harmony, which implies beauty, is only one possible outcome of combining colors. Not all color combinations are intended to be harmonious. Harmony may be more pleasing than chaos, but it is not necessarily more interesting or exciting.
A design concept may call for colors that are distinctly unbeautiful: startling, visually aggressive, even disturbing. Dissonant combinations of color play a significant role in design.
A more comprehensive term for the force of colors used together is color effects. Color effects fall into two broad categories. The first is color harmony, the traditional idea of beauty or pleasingness in color combinations. The “pleasing joint effect of two or more colors” may be a closer definition of color harmony. The second is visual impact: the effect of color choices and combinations on the visual force of a design or image.
Successful color combinations are realized in terms of goal. Instead of thinking about combinations as harmonious or dissonant, they can be thought of as successful or unsuccessful. What was the colorist trying to achieve in choosing the colors?
- To create an image that has shock value, or high visibility, or a suggestion of luxury?
- To startle, excite, or disturb the viewer?
- To evoke association with a particular product or idea?
Color effects encompasses the central issue of color use:
What makes a group of colors work together to solve the problem at hand?
The old “laws” of harmony may seem antiquated now, but the observations that gave rise to them remain fresh and valid. They are immensely useful as a starting place for achieving color harmony.
But no set of “laws” for color harmony is comprehensive, and no single factor determines it. All aspects of a color composition — hue, value, saturation, the spacing of intervals, and completeness — contribute to a harmonious effect. When all are considered, it is possible to generate color harmonies that transcend historical theory, individual taste, current trends, and cultural bias.
Harmony can be found within a premise perfectly stated by Josef Albers: “What counts here – first and last — is not so-called knowledge, but vision – seeing” (Albers, 1963)
Albers, Josef (1963) Interaction of Colors. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1971) Goethe’s Color Theory. Translated by Rupprecht Matthei. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold
Itten, Johannes (1961) The Art of Color. Translated by Ernst Van Haagen. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold