Color Key with Colin Page

April 2, 2020

For years, I would hear about painters working within a color key, and I would wonder what that meant. Color key is a simple idea, but it has taken a lot of work to fully understand and implement in my own work. 

In painting, color is a direct connection to viewer's emotions. In the same way that the key of a musical composition can describe a feeling, color key can also set a tone. C major is often described as innocent and happy. A light blue painting tends to be calm and peaceful. The musical key of E minor is known to sound melancholy. A dominant red painting can read as hot, angry, and dramatic. There are some commonalities in how colors are understood, but our reactions to color are very personal, and can vary from person to person. So in the end, each painter is making color choices based on their own cultural and sensory memories of how each color makes them feel. 

Sometimes the key of a painting refers to how dark or light the image is. Sometimes it refers to a dominance of warm or cool. Maybe it's a tendency toward green, or purple. Color key doesn't have to refer to just one color taking over. It can also refer to the interactions created between colors. A painting can have soft, pastel color shifts that describe a quiet scene, or it can be full of contrasting colors that vibrate and push against each other. Is the painting quiet or loud, harmonious or dissonant? (Isn't it interesting how often we rely on musical terms to describe visual ideas?) 

Whether conscious or not, all painters are keying our paintings around a color idea. Sometimes we are just responding to the subject in front of us. Sometimes we want to convey a specific emotion. Sometimes we are just in a rut of certain color habits. Even in representational painting, artists are making choices that set the tone for how that image will be read. It's either telling the story of our own emotional connection, or trying to create direct contact with the viewer through feeling. Color is the most direct path to our hearts. The longer I paint, the more I try to understand and implement that idea. 

Related posts:

Colin Page on Color and Light

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