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What On Earth Was He Thinking? – Color in Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda

February 17, 2012

Color can be confusing. It can make or break a work of art. I posted this simple lesson in color theory a while back, and I think it’s worth re-posting. The first part contains brief explanations of simple color schemes, and the second part contains an analysis of color in Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda.

SIMPLIFIED COLOR SCHEMES:

Monochromatic:

In theory, a monochromatic color scheme only uses variations of a single color. This example shows various tints and shades of blue.

Monochromatic color scheme.

Monochromatic color scheme.

Mother Color:

A mother color composition uses at least a little bit of one color mixed in to all the other colors. This unifies the colors by giving them all a slight tint of that color. In our example here, the mother color is green.

Mother color color scheme.

Mother color color scheme.

Analogous:

In theory, an analagous color scheme uses colors found next to each other on the color wheel. Since the colors are similar in temperature and hue, they produce a unified overall composition.

Analogous color scheme.

Analogous color scheme.

Analogous:

Here’s a second example of the analogous color scheme, using colors that are next to each other on the color wheel.

Analogous color scheme.

Analogous color scheme.

Complementary:

A complementary color scheme uses variants of colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel. We refer to these colors as complements or complementary colors.

Complementary color scheme.

Complementary color scheme.

Complementary:

Here’s a second example of the complementary color scheme. Orange and blue are on directly opposing sides of the color wheel.

Complementary color scheme.

Complementary color scheme.

Triad:

A triad color scheme uses three colors evenly spaced apart in the color wheel–in this example the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.

Triad color scheme.

Triad color scheme.

Accented Neutral:

This color scheme uses various shades of neutral (whites, blacks, and grays) with a touch of a single color (in our example, red.)

Accented neutral color scheme.

Accented neutral color scheme.

Accented Neutral – Warm:

This color scheme uses various shades of warm neutrals (whites, browns, and half tone browns) with a touch of a single color (in our example, blue.)

Accented neutral color scheme.

Accented neutral color scheme.

COMPLEX COLOR SCHEMES:

Case Study – Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda:

In nature and in most great artwork, color schemes are never as simple as the examples above.

Complex color scheme, Carl Bloch's "Pool of Bethesda"

Complex color scheme, Carl Bloch's "Pool of Bethesda"

Often artists use combinations of color schemes to create harmonious color relationships. (Just like some notes sound better together than others, similarly certain color combinations create beautiful harmonies.) Take for example the two sides of Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda. Left of the dotted line, the color scheme might be interpreted as a warm accented neutral color scheme, because the composition consists of shades of neutral brown with a few red accents. However, upon closer observation, we can see that these browns actually have a tint of green, which makes this section a red-green complementary color scheme. In order to achieve a unity of colors, Bloch may have used a mother color approach, tinting his browns with green.

Let’s look at the right-hand side of the image. It mirrors its left-hand counterpart in that it too can be read as an accented neutral color scheme, but a cool one rather than a warm one. Again, upon closer observation, this side of the canvas has a violet-gray hue. The yellow scarf serves as the color accent. And again, the violet tint of the neutrals creates a complementary color scheme with the yellow accent. To complicate this color scheme even more, the red in the woman’s scarf creates a triad of color with the yellows and violet-blue grays.

To simplify, we might say that the painting consists of two localized complementary color schemes.
The two sides of the composition–the green tinted side and the violet tinted side–combine to create a macro color harmony.

Did Bloch plan these color schemes down to the last detail? In my experience, harmonies are planned in theory at the beginning of the creation of a work of art, and then as the work progresses, the artist’s intuition forces a practical application of color that is sometimes surprising. When the work is finished, we can then look back and determine many of the color theory principles at play. Bloch likely made many conscious color decisions throughout the process in order to create eye movement, balance, and atmospheric perspective within the composition.

Regardless of how much of it was planned in advance, the final combination and intersection of multiple color schemes makes Pool of Bethesda a fascinating color study.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 10:25 am

    What a wonderful, direct article about color. Thank you for sharing.

  2. December 29, 2014 2:58 am

    Reblogged this on strikethrough blog.

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