Harmony in Art

An artist is generally quick to understand what perspective is, or the three-dimensionality of a painting. However, there are some concepts that are not so easy to understand, even for the most experienced artists.

For example, what are we talking about when we refer to the movement of an artwork? And when we talk about the rhythm of a painting, what are we referring to? What does the critic mean when, in defining a work, he or she emphasizes its rhythm as well as its variety? And – even more difficult – what do we mean when we speak of harmony in the face of a painting?

Well, it is on this last term that we want to dwell today, to help all novice painters to create more harmonious paintings. We anticipate this: it won’t be child’s play. The difficult thing is not so much to create works that are harmonious, but to understand what is, even before, in practice, harmony in art. Let’s discover it together!

Harmony in art: a definition

What is harmony in art? Let’s start with something simpler: let’s try to understand what is meant by harmony, browsing through the pages of the Treccani dictionary.

The first definition obviously has to do with the world of music, and we are not at all surprised by this. In fact, it speaks of the “consonance of voices or instruments” as well as of a “combination of chords, that is, of simultaneous sounds that produce an impression pleasing to the ear and to the soul”. We are far from the meaning of harmony in visual art, but certainly already this definition of harmony helps us to understand something more: the goal is to produce something pleasant.

Another definition of harmony refers to the broader meaning of harmony, which is juxtaposed with proportion, and the “convenient agreement of several parts or elements”.

The definition in painting and sculpture

Then we come to the definition that interests us most “in painting and sculpture, the convenient arrangement of figures in the work as a whole: a. of lines, of forms; a. of colors or a. chromatic, an arrangement of colors obtained by juxtaposing different tones or even, in the simplest form, tones of the same range or different gradations of a single tone”.

This is what harmony is in visual art: a particular arrangement of the elements that make up a painting, a correspondence between the main and secondary parts, a kind of concord at the visual level, for the good of the eyes and the soul. We could say, more specifically, that we can speak of harmony in a painting when all the elements, however distinct, arrive as a unified whole, as if every detail of the work presented itself from the outset as a part of the whole.

It is a mistake to think that a painting, in order to be harmonious, must be monotonous, repetitive: things are not like that at all. Harmony is instead a balance between monotony and chaos, it lies in the middle, taking a bit of one and a bit of the other.

Harmony with colors

As mentioned above, there are many different ways to increase the harmony of a painting. Primarily, the ways that are taken involve strategies related to the choice and use of colors, as well as the shapes made.

Let’s start with the colors, and try to understand how they can become a vehicle for harmony. Certainly, the power of colors is what very often drives people towards art and painting, and at first we think that painting is also and above all the freedom to use any color, to express at best our own sensations.

This is certainly true: in order to have a harmonious whole, however, it is important that the colors used have a connection. This does not limit the freedom of the artist: it leads him, however, to create “sets” of colors that can create a harmonious painting.

We have many different theories to help us, with the famous schemes for the use of colors, which usually start from the chromatic wheel of colors obtained by subtractive synthesis.

The schemes for the use of colors and the color wheel

We all know, at least roughly, the color wheel, as created by the mixing of primary colors, secondary colors and so on. Well, by carefully choosing the colors on the chromatic wheel it is possible to have very harmonious paintings. The same artists of the past, in a more or less mechanical way, in a more or less accentuated way, did so, using for example – for the most part – the colors of a specific “triangle” of the chromatic wheel, and therefore of a specific colorimetric zone.

There are many harmonic schemes for the use of color: it is possible to narrow the colorimetric zone used as much as possible, opting for a monochromatic painting, moving from the center of the chromatic wheel outwards, using, for example, all the variations of the color red or green.

It is possible to follow the complementary harmonic scheme, choosing a main color and its complementary, which is in the opposite part of the chromatic wheel; or, to be less daring, it is possible to opt for the analogy, choosing a color at the edge of the chromatic wheel to go with the two adjacent colors.

Harmony with shapes

Colors are certainly not the only vehicle for harmony within a painting. The signs and shapes created by the artist can also contribute to a sense of harmony. It is essential that the viewer’s eye is taken into consideration right from the start. In fact, the viewer cannot look at – and see – the entire painting in the same way, since he cannot perceive all the details at the same time.

This is why the painter’s task is also to direct the viewer’s gaze, bringing elements into focus and blurring other parts, perhaps more distant. The signs themselves, the edges of the figures, can influence the harmony of the painting: elements that are repeated help in this sense, such as the tiles of a floor or the crosspieces of a fence.

But the edges of these elements cannot all be the same, with some signs more pronounced, others softer, to create not monotony, but harmony, without venturing into the territories of hyperrealism, which, precisely because of its exaggeration, ends up deviating from reality.

Finally, harmony is also achieved by creating forms that chase each other, but not the same, with different sizes and proportions: the optimum is to be able to create forms that differ within a network of constant relationships.