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An Epiphany of Color

An objectively verifiable, rational and easy-to-use approach to color harmony.

“Color has a logic all its own,” according to the great French painter Pierre Bonnard, widely considered one of the most important colorists of the 20th Century. This article contains the logic Bonnard was talking about.

There is almost nothing currently in the body of literature from artists or scientists that makes any sense on the subject of color harmony. In fact, the only quote we’ve been able to find that really makes any sense at all regarding this topic comes from Bonnard. “Just like music, count 1, 2, 3” he wrote. He jotted down this deceptively simple remark in a sketchbook, along with a number of other rather mysterious comments on a variety of painterly topics. But nothing sums up the subject of color harmony more accurately and dare I say more succinctly than Bonnard’s music analogy. Color harmony and simple proportional number relationships are the same thing. Color relationships are number relationships. When you have finished reading this article, you will have the full power and beauty of color at your command for the first time. In fact, five minutes after reading this and taking a screen shot of these Harmonic Charts, you can begin applying this knowledge to your work. The rule for using the chart is simple: Use the colors that are touching. That’s it. Currently, there is no universally accepted understanding of the subject of color harmony, which is really just a term for the coherent and orderly use of color in a work of art. The color harmony books we’ve all leafed through at Barnes & Noble or Borders do not make a lot of sense, although they do contain useful information about the behavior of color. However, when you try to apply the information to your work as a method of creating intelligently controlled harmony, you discover that there’s no specific procedure offered for achieving a harmony of colors. Even worse are the theorists who purport to offer systems of color harmony with no rational explanation for how the system works. I originally wanted to put the Harmonic Chart together for artists who are already using the HVC Color Composer so that they could get a look at a good sampling of what objectively verifiable harmonies arranged in simple numerical proportional schemes actually look like. It’s a good idea for graphic designers and gallery artists alike to make their own harmonic charts to explore their own sensibilities and create pre-prepared harmonies for their own work, although it is not absolutely necessary if artists choose to work directly with Master Colors’ HVC Color Composer software. Every artist has a personal sensibility that is all their own, which is what makes it your art. But art also is a craft, like carpentry or repairing a car motor. You need the knowledge and the tools or the deck will collapse and the engine won’t work. Continued on next page

Master Colors’ Harmonic Charts: Section 1

HOW THE HARMONIC CHARTS WORK: All of the colors in the swatch ensembles below work with each other, as long as they are touching. The controlled contrast generated when colors touch is what creates the harmonies. The harmonies are arranged so that black against white also works with all of these color combinations, which is necessary for most graphic designs, as in black type on a white field. All of the colors touching the white background can be used against white in combination with all of these harmonies, even if they are from a different section of the chart. (See illustrations below for further examples. Also, see more Master Colors’ Harmonic Charts below.)

An Epiphany of Color Continued from previous page

The knowledge of how color really works is one of the objective aspects of the artist’s craft. It is the knowledge and the techniques, or technology, that can give every serious artist the power to reach her or his full potential and experience the true beauty and bliss inherent in their chosen path in life. Being grounded in the mechanics of a truly objective method of color harmony will free your spirit and give you the means to take your work to new heights. Any meaningful definition of harmony that will really help the artist during the execution of a work of art is a numerical definition. Musical scales are not harmonic because in the opinion of the composer, a particular arrangement of notes sounds good. The notes sound good because the harmonics are objectively based on simple numerical proportions both with respect to the notes and the timing systems in a musical composition. Based on this sound objective knowledge steeped in the Western Tradition, the possibilities for the subjective expressions of the composer are infinite. And so it is with art. Color harmonies are created by the use of simple proportional numerical relationships spanning the full range of HVC (hue, value, chroma) contrasts, from soft, middle to strong, like black on white, which is the strongest contrast in the Master Colors system (88 steps). This gives the artist maximum flexibility with a wide range of selection choices for the successful completion of any work of art. When a harmonic composition is based on simple numerical proportions, let’s say a simple proportional scheme like 10, 20, 40, 80 as measured with the HVC Color Composer, the artist gets a generous palette of colors that work in that scheme. The simplest proportional schemes look the most harmonious and tend to be the sweetest harmonies, but there is plenty of room for artists to explore more unusual proportional schemes on the Color Composer as well. Henri Matisse, for example, said that he “strives for a striking proportion” in his works.

A FURTHER EXPLANATION OF THE SWATCH ENSEMBLES: Notice that the large orange swatch at left is touching seven colors, including the white background. The orange, therefore, can be used with any of those seven colors in your designs. In addition to the white background, the orange is touching the purple-violet swatch in the upper left, the cerulean blue swatch in the lower left, the large turquoise swatch at right, and the smaller red, green and purple swatches in the lower right corner of the orange swatch. The relationships between those colors has already been established by using the HVC Color Composer and you can safely use any of those relationships in your design. You should not place, for example, the little green swatch on the orange, let’s say, against the purple-violet color in the upper left, because as you can clearly see, those two swatches are not touching each other and the relationship between those two colors has not been determined. If you follow the simple rule of using only colors that are touching in these charts, you will have no difficulties in using the Harmonic Charts. This of course means that those colors must also be touching in your design. In the next illustration below, we will use one of the many free templates available at to demonstrate how to execute a color composition within a design using these charts. Our free templates are also very useful in the beginning when you are learning how to use the Composer, which is really easy to use once you get the knack of it. The HVC Color Composer plugin for Photoshop and InDesign cost less than some tubes of Windsor Newton oil paint.

The Harmonic Chart that accompanies this article is composed mainly of this simple 1:2:4:8 doubling progression, although I did alternate with another doubling progression of 15s and 30s (1.5 and 3 proportionally) for some variety and a little more flexibility. Different numerical progressions do have a different mood or feeling. When you base your color compositions on universal principles of harmony and proportion, your intuitive ideas will flow more successfully into your work. Plus it is nice to have the satisfaction of being in control of your work from beginning to end. Actually it’s more than nice. It is essential. The HVC Color Composer by Master Colors measures the combined hue, value and chroma (i.e. hue intensity) contrast distances between millions of colors in our own equidistant 3D HVC color space and serves up palettes with numerous colors in a range of contrasts from soft, middle to strong to elegantly solve any color composition problem you may face. Continued on next page

HOW TO MOVE THE COLORS FROM THE SWATCH CHART PDF INTO THE TEMPLATES: Take a screen shot of the swatch ensemble (which is in a PDF format) that you wish to work with and copy it into a Photoshop document. Place the template you have chosen, which is in a Photoshop document, and place it next to your swatch document. Eyedrop the colors into the shapes following the simple rule of using only colors that are touching. The steps for doing this are the following: 1) Click on the shape you want to color with your cursor. 2) Click on your Eyedropper tool and then click on the color you have chosen for that shape. 3) Use your Paint Bucket to drop the color into that shape.


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I just completed a portrait in oils where it seemed like I was using a 5 contrast as measured by the Composer over and over again. An HVC contrast of 5 creates a pretty subtle contrast. I think of it as a half step, and a 10 on the Composer as a whole step.

FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE; EXECUTING A CONTROLLED HARMONIC COLOR COMPOSITION: For this article, I thought we would use this superb Matisse cutout design because of its simplicity. The astonishing cutout series that the great master did toward the end of his career should be considered the Bible for today’s graphic designers. Notice that I followed the simple rules outlined in the article. Again, black against white can be used in conjunction with all of the color combinations but not necessarily touching other colors unless they are touching in the chart. And again, any colors touching white can be used against white in your design.

Harmonic Charts: Section 2 A DIFFERENT NUMERICAL PROGRESSION: Here, I just wanted to demonstrate that different numbers have different moods, even if the proportional scheme is the same. This is a 1:2 proportional scheme composed of 15s and 30s, rather than the 10, 20, 40, 80 pattern I used in Section 1. As you can see, it has a completely different feeling than the combinations in Section 1. In this section, only the largest swatch works with white.

This simple repetition of half steps for this particular piece was necessary because of all the subtle skin tones. When doing design work where the color can be more arbitrary, proportional schemes like 10, 20, 40, 80-plus (black on white) work really well. Other really nice progressions I like to work in are 15, 30, 60 and 12, 25, 50 as measured on the HVC Color Composer. It’s easy to see that if all the colors have an equal impact on each other, then that would create a unity or harmony of colors because none of the relationships would dominate over any other. But what happens when you need to use a variety of different contrasts, which of course would be required in most works of art. The next thing the mind will recognize as harmony is to double the contrast, as in creating a simple 1:2 proportion, and so on. Bonnard did not leave any further detail on the specific methods he used to achieve his magnificent harmonic masterpieces. I guess he left that job for us. And now, Master Colors has provided this precious knowledge of how color works to you for the cost of a few tubes of paint. We hope you take full advantage of it. By Andy Hussie Sr. President, Master Colors Footnotes --The HVC Color Composer was invented by Master Colors CTO Andrew F. Hussie Jr. --Master Colors provides a free 45-minute training webinar for all artists, teachers and students who are interested. Please contact Master Colors CEO Neil Murphy by email on our website at if you would like to take advantage of this educational opportunity. --Master Colors is dedicated to the needs of all serious artists and is committed to providing our software at the lowest possible price to every artist in the world.

Harmony brings a dazzling sparkle to everything you create A LITTLE MORE DETAIL ABOUT THE HVC COLOR COMPOSER AND THE AMAZING SWATCH BOX FUNCTION: The HVC model is a much more artist-friendly color space than all other existing models, and allows for easy navigation through color space for you to make your color selections. The hue slice positions the strongest hue on the left side of the hue slice directly across from its corresponding grey value and all of the chromas modulate rationally toward their corresponding light and dark grey values. (Go to and download a free demo if you like.) The strongest hue is also positioned correctly according to its corresponding value, as are all the variations within the hue slice. The three axes of color, hue, value and chroma, are all in their intuitively correct positions, unlike any of the other color spaces. Frankly, I can’t see how anyone can use the RGB space, which makes no intuitive sense, and HSB forces the strongest hue into the upper right of the box no matter what its intensity or value is, so good luck trying to find a hue at the value and chroma you want. Continued on next page

‘THE CHARM OF A WOMAN CAN TEACH A PAINTER MANY THINGS ABOUT HIS CRAFT.’ -- BONNARD: The master, seen near the window, sketches a picture of his wife Marthe seated at a table. If the subtle nuances of poetry and charm could be turned into a science, Bonnard was certainly one of the few to achieve it. Each of his paintings through the 1930s until his death in 1947 has a unique poetry all of its own, even distinct from his similar paintings of the same time period. Even the works of great painters like Cezanne and Monet seemed to have a cookie cutter problem where, as spectacular as their paintings were, seemed like they were coming off a factory production line compared to the distinctly unique and mysterious poetry that Bonnard was able to infuse into each of his paintings. Astonishing! This was an unprecedented aesthetic achievement. He has created a rich aesthetic universe that did not exist before he carved out these beautiful places for the cultured soul to find bliss and solace. A sweet refuge from a weary world.

A FRENCH NATIONAL TREASURE: This dazzling masterpiece was Bonnard’s last painting, recolored here with one of our training templates using the Composer. He was working on this great painting in 1947 during the last year of his life. Try our step-bystep tutorial if you dare using the HVC Color Composer with this template in Photoshop. Painters will love it. TOP AND BOTTOM: Is this Matisse design fun or what? Have a blast with this one.

THE HVC COLOR COMPOSER (LEFT) MAKES YOU THE MASTER: The artist can work either directly from the Composer’s palettes or pull the palettes into the Photoshop or InDesign Swatch Box to assemble lightning fast and effective color compositions. This technique is particularly practical when designing color combinations on a field color, such as white.

The magic of Master Colors transforms Adobe’s palettes into a more intelligent tool Continued from previous page

And even physicists have difficulty with the Lab space. No wonder artists sometimes struggle with color problems. HVC is the way to go. The Master Colors HVC color space was specifically designed to solve for contrast distances for the purpose of controlling the color harmonics in a work of art and for solving artistic problems in general. I am currently working on two articles that I think will be helpful to painters, one on how to mix colors quickly and accurately and a second on approaches to using the HVC Color Composer when creating a non-cyber world painting with actual real paint on a surface like canvas or paper. Also look for more upcoming articles on how to handle more complex color design problems on our website at

A personal note from the president of Master Colors

The HVC Color Composer has three unique palette functions:

Dear artist, I hope I’ve been able to articulate clearly and simply how color works in a practical way so that you can read this article and have this vital information at your disposal now and for the rest of your career. It’s now been 10 years since we first began development on the Master Colors suite of products. We’ve done the work ourselves with the help of a very few investors who are and will always remain our heroes. You have them to thank for the knowledge of how this key element of our beloved craft actually works. We hope it brings you much joy and fulfillment in your art career. We lost our founder and CEO Seth Cohen last year. I dedicate this article to him and the knowledge he was so passionate about sharing to all of you. Sincerely yours, Andy Hussie Sr .

1) The Auto-Range palettes provide a beautiful proportional medley of 5, 10, 20 and 40 HVC contrast steps that key off your chosen Target Color, which of course changes as you progress through the piece. THE HVC COLOR COMPOSER MAKES THE ADOBE SWATCH BOXES TRULY MAGICAL: Above is a detail of the InDesign Swatch Box with a Master Colors Harmonic Palette pulled into it. The swatches here are on the small setting, but I love the large setting which makes the swatches feel like you’re looking through your Munsell or Pantone chips. Pictured at the top of the page is another of our Matisse cutout design training templates. I used a simple 25-50 combo along with the 80-plus blackwhite combo, which sets off the progression nicely. We always arrange our recommended progressions to accommodate the all important black against white combination, which is critical to designers. Matisse said black is the queen of colors and designers know just how critical it is to be able to use that relationship at any time in their work. A rule of thumb for designers working on a white field -- go with the Auto-Range progression of 5, 10, 20, 40 and use the 50 and 60 contrasts if you need to for reaching some of the srongest hues, another absolute necessity for designers. The harmonies will work beautifully.

2) The Range palettes where you can call up colors of any specified contrast distance. 3) The Proportion palettes which allow you to find a third color that has a specified proportional relationship with two Target Colors. I love the large swatches in the InDesign Swatch box into which you can place our palettes to give you instant access to your Harmonic Palettes and a lightning fast workflow. Your color choices will work perfectly, and take you to the level of control that great musical composers have had in creating their compositions for centuries. Knowledge makes you the maestro. We are here to help you every step of the way. And please feel free to take our free 45-minute webinar. We’ll give you a head start and support you on this beautiful, magical journey that you undertook when you were inspired to be an artist to begin with. Knowledge is the key.

Harmonic Charts: Section 3

Thirty-three color harmonic ensembles, including white and black: I am particularly fond of the middle to strong chroma range when I design with color. This section reflects my own sensibilites but would look totally different if you designed it using the same numerical combinations. Within a true objective harmonic framework, the individual sensibilites of each artist are infinitely varied. In this section, the second largest swatches in the upper corners of the big swatches are not touching white and therefore cannot be used with white. In Section 1, the swatches in the same position can be used with white. In this section alone, the combinations and permutations of different harmonic combinations are mind boggling.

Color like a Composer

Color and music, and spaceships for that matter, at a most fundamental level observe the same laws of nature, that of numbers. But there are some quirky and fascinating differences between the way the two art forms work as well. In music, the composer generally uses only seven notes to create a composition. In art, the artist has about 14 to 16 million colors that can be used with any other colors at any time, as long as the laws of color harmony are observed. This is how many colors the eyes can see, according to scientists. Through the miracle of the computer, the HVC Color Composer instantly calculates the distances between all of these colors and serves you up a palette meeting your requested specifications. That’s a beautiful thing when you think about it. The possibilties are endless.

THE BEAUTY AND INFINITE VARIETY OF COLOR HARMONY: It feels like you’re designing like Mozart or Beethoven when you use the Composer. I like to line up a half dozen or so of the same composition and methodically execute the methods I am outlining here. I find it to be a very effective way to work.

WHEN DID ART STOP BEING FUN? Don’t worry. The fun starts all over again when you take complete control of the color in your art. When I am designing this kind of flat-color piece, I like to put a half dozen or so grey templates of the same piece on my screen, which makes me feel like I don’t have to get too uptight about making one piece absolutely perfect. Then I pick out the ones I like and get rid of the rest. Plus, it really is enjoyable to explore a variety of color options when using the HVC Color Composer, which makes it so easy and effortless. I hope you have gotten something out of this article and take this opportunity to become a true master of color.

‘The artist attains the universal by means of a magic ring.’ -- Bonnard

FOR THE DESIGN JUST BELOW: Above are the colors I chose from for the design in the top row second from the left.

Bonnard said he wanted his paintings to arrive to the artists of the 21st Century on the wings of a butterfly. Well Pierre, the butterfly has landed. When a French critic questioned whether or not Bonnard was a great painter, Mattisse’s son said he had never seen his father so angry. Matisse wrote a note right on the publication stating he, Henri Matisse, hereby certified that Pierre Bonnard was indeed a great painter, “The strongest of us all,” as he would phrase it, and shipped it off to the dunderheaded editor who had allowed such an outrage to occur in his publication. These two great artists were a comfort to each other during the difficult occupation years in France during World War II, complaining in letters about the cold weather and the difficulties of getting fuel and the other austerities of the war, and as they also endured the loneliness of their old age. Most of their friends were gone, Vuillard, Monet, Renior, Marthe, Bonnard’s wife, so many others. But these two masters carried on during those years, creating one transcendental masterpiece after the next. The reason I mention this is that these two artists whom I admire most inspired me to create Master Colors so that we could bring this knowledge of color to you. As we sort through the rubble of the 20th Century, these masters speak to a new generation of artists in a way that is more vital and relevant than any other artists I can think of. Styles come and go. Knowledge is eternal.

MY IDEA FOR THESE 7 DESIGNS: Sometimes I use a little mental exercise when I design for my articles. Here I imagined I was designing the art for latte cups with the same design, but different colors with a similar mood. So I used the chart on page 1 and picked out three swatch ensembles for the top row. For the lower row I went to a different group of stronger hues and picked out four more swatch ensembles that had a similar feeling to me. I think it worked pretty well.

An Epiphany of Color  

An objectively verifiable, rational and easy-to-use approach to color harmony.