A sense of accord and balance among colors in a visual composition or design, resulting in a positive affective response and/or cognitive judgment about color combination.
Color Harmony Theories
Many theories about color harmony have evolved since antiquity across different fields including art, design, psychology, and physics. Each of these has a different focus, and hence there is little consensus in terms of defining and describing the construct “color harmony.” Most theories about color harmony are highly prescriptive, and this is their weakness – they assume that responses to color are deterministic, uniform, universal, and fixed irrespective of context rather than idiographic, less deterministic, and open to the influence of factors relating to culture and context.
The problem of color harmony has long been regarded as an esoteric matter for the artist. But since the advent of interdisciplinary research on colors, color harmony has become an object of scientific research giving rise to several theories. These theories emphasize different relations between the role of color harmony in environment and man, his culture, and his message and consider these as the exclusive laws of harmony. The scientifically established theories deal almost exclusively with the first level of the content of the concept of color harmony. They research the connections, which are mostly the same for all people. These relations express interactions between color perceptions, which can be described, in sum, in terms of relations between color perception parameters: hue, saturation, and lightness of harmonizing colors. These relations lend names to the harmony types such as complementary harmony, triadic harmony, scale of equal saturations, and others.
Color Harmony: A Twenty-First-Century Approach
Harmony as a Balance Between Psychophysical Forces
According to the first theory on color harmony, the rules for producing color harmony experiences are determined by the mechanics of color vision. The trigger of the theory has been the phenomenon of successive contrast: longer observation of green results in a red afterimage. Investigating this phenomenon, Rumford  has established that colors of successive color contrast mixed in an “appropriate proportion” in the Maxwell disk are resulting in a medium gray color. Goethe has built his theory of color harmony based on this observation. He thought the colors of successive contrast and simultaneous contrast are identical . Therefore he stated that the “appropriate proportion” established by Rumford expresses the magnitude of color surfaces creating harmony experiences.
Chevreul, the French chemist, arrived at similar conclusions, stressing the role of complementariness in creating harmony, supporting his theory by successive contrast phenomena . His message transmitted by Delacroix was translated by Seurat and Signac into the practice of painting [5, 6, 7]. Seurat himself experimented with harmonies, recapitulating his results by stating that harmony is a unity of opposites and similarities, a principle serving as the theoretical basis of pointillism.
Goethe’s theory has appeared with the mediation of Hölzel  in the works on the theory of art written by Kandinsky, Klee, Itten, Albers and Moholy-Nagy [9, 10, 11, 12, 13]. Itten, in his book written for the students of the Bauhaus school, has fixed this proportion in relation to main colors . He established that the appropriate mutual proportion of the colors yellow, orange, red, violet, blue, and green is as follows: 9:8:6:4:6.
Krawkow has demonstrated by experiments that the colors of successive contrast are not identical to the colors of simultaneous contrast . This experimental result has refuted the conclusions of harmony theories originated from Rumford. Successive contrast is a physiological phenomenon, while the simultaneous color contrast is an aesthetic influence.
Harmony as Arrangement of Colors in Scales
It was observed by textile dyers and printers that mixing a color with white, gray, or black in different proportions led to very attractive, harmonic color complexes. It was one of the secrets of the trade of painters to make each of their colors dull by admixing a color in different proportions, helping colors in the picture to form harmonic complexes. Both approaches arose from the recognition that colors with uniformly varying saturation or lightness, i.e., those forming a scale, appeared harmonic. This observation was the starting point of the second generation of theories on harmony.
The first scale of color harmony was constructed by Newton and published in his Optics in 1704 . Dividing the spectrum into seven colors, he paralleled it to the musical scale. His idea was further developed by Hoffmann in his book published in 1786 , explaining color harmonies with the aid of acoustic analogies . In 1810, the painter Runge suggested and attempted to develop a unified system of musical and color harmonies. These ideas misdirected the research on color harmonies for a long time since even their followers were concerned only with hue scales.
Ostwald  and Plochère  were the first to define the arrangement in scales by writing relationships between saturation and lightness. Scale members were described by Ostwald as additive color mixing and by Plochère as subtractive color mixing components. In his theory of harmonies, Ostwald pointed out that in order to find every possible harmony, possible orders in the color solid have to be found . The simpler this order, the more clear and self-evident is the harmony. There are essentially two of these orders: those in the equivalent color circle and in the isochrome triangle. This latter statement expresses the dependence of harmony on the uniform variation of saturation and lightness. Ostwald’s theory was progressive in that it connected the laws of color harmony with the relations between exactly measurable components. For the achromatic scale, the laws of harmony are coincident with experience. In other respects, however, experience fails to support his findings. The essential deficiency of his laws of harmony resides in his color system. Color points of his color system represent color perceptions related only by mathematically definable quantitative variations of color mixing components. The interrelation between them comprises no perceptually equal or uniformly varying intervals.
Henri Pfeiffer, a painter starting from the Bauhaus school, later a graduate from the University of Cologne who became professor at the Ecole d’Architecture in Paris, considered the creation of a color harmony system as his chef d’oeuvre. He started from the acoustic meaning of “harmony” – namely, that the three main tones do (C), mi (E), and sol (G) of a vibrating chord are proportional in a way that the chord length for mi (E) is the harmonic mean between the chord lengths for do (C) and sol (G). The algebraic generalization of this rule was applied for determining color harmonies. Referring to tests by Rosenstiehl  and Fechner , Pfeiffer established that lightness intervals of the logarithmic scale are in a harmonic relation and called this scale a harmonic scale. Then he deduced correlations between the logarithmic scale and the scale obtained by the golden section. In his book he described in detail his tests using Plateau and Maxwell disks to create harmonic scales. He classified his scales into two groups: isochromic or equal hue scales and isophanic or equal lightness scales. First he defined each kind of harmony and then presented its mode of construction by means of a revolving disk, followed by the analysis of the psychic character of harmony. Characteristic of his work are his chromatologic tables, with the aid of which he defined harmonizing color groups.
Harmonic scales can be developed not only according to laws of additive or subtractive color mixing but also by taking perceptually uniform intervals between colors. Colors of the Munsell color system constitute such perceptually uniform hue, saturation, and lightness scales [24, 25]. In his book, Munsell writes that a color scheme along a “path” is always harmonious.
Color Harmony as an Aesthetic Experience
According to the most recent theories of color harmony, the principles related to the establishment of color harmony experience could be recognized only by statistical surveys based on a multitude of experiences. Their experiments are related to determined population each time. Ultimately they intended to create a system which may predict whether a given color composition will be judged by the members of a defined population as harmonic or not.
Moon and Spencer developed a model to quantify color harmony by statistical methods based on surveys [26, 27]. The main elements of Moon and Spencer’s color harmony model are color intervals, area ratio, and aesthetic measurement. The aesthetical measure developed by Moon and Spencer, despite of its controversial results, provides a basic quantitative approximation of the problem in a field possessing so far only qualitative contemplations lacking verification. According to Moon and Spencer, the colors can be harmonious if the color difference is determined between the individual components. The definite color difference is defined as an interval. The magnitude of intervals defined by Moon and Spencer differs by hues. According to Moon and Spencer, a harmonic balance between color samples can be only reached if the scalar momentums related to an adaptation point in a linear space are equal to or are products of each other. The adaptation point is a point of the linear color space which corresponds to the adaptation state of the eye, normally it is medium gray.
More people have dealt with the definition of the magnitude of those intervals between members of a scale being judged as harmonic one. Dimmick  and Boring  determined the smallest of such intervals. They found that for an interval less than a certain value no harmony can any longer develop. Moon and Spencer found that these intervals were different for different hues. To examine and confirm this observation, Mori et al.  made experiments, and their findings agreed with those of earlier tests on lightness intervals by Katz, Gelb, and Granit [31, 32, 33].
In fine arts, intervals between colors in a picture have always been important and characteristic of a given painter. Matisse  has always striven for uniform intervals in his color compositions. As Mondrian  wrote it in 1945, “For millennia, painting expressed proportionality in terms of color relations and form relations, achieving but recently the finding of proportionality itself.”
Between the Coloroid saturation and luminance values of color compositions felt harmonic there is an identical number or logarithmically changing number of harmony intervals.
The members of compositions consisting of identical hues felt harmonic are located on straight lines of the actual axis section of the Coloroid color space .
The magnitude of harmony content of color compositions located on straight lines of the Coloroid color planes spaced at identical harmony intervals is felt different depending on the angle in relation to a straight line chosen as starting line being perpendicular to the gray axis.
The harmony content of hue pairs is higher than that of the others if they decline from each other in the Coloroid color space less than 10°, or decline between 30 and 40°, or decline between 130 and 140°, or their declination is near to 180°.
Both for men and women, it is valid that the intensity of the harmony experience of a composition is in synchronism with the preference of the colors in the composition bearing harmony.
Philosophical and Historical Overview
A great deal has been written about color harmony, from Chevreul , who was convinced that many different color hues and their harmony could be defined by means of the relationship between numbers and his color system as an instrument to find “harmony of analogy” and “harmony of contrasts” or from the numeric naming system of Munsell (1905) [24, 25], based on the criterion of perceptual uniformity and balance, passing through Bauhaus theories (1919–1933), until sophisticated contemporary three-dimensional color softwares.
However, in philosophical terms color harmony is a highly variable concept that is open to the influence of different including individual differences (such as age, gender, personality, affective state, and so on), cultural and subcultural differences, as well as contextual, perceptual, and temporal factors. In addition, from an ontological perspective, many early theorists championed an understanding of color harmony that was universal in nature and strictly deterministic, that is, color harmony was an effect that occurred for all people on a highly predictable basis irrespective of the context or situation. In the twenty-first century, theorists tend to take a more idiographic, stochastic view about color harmony. That is, the highly subjective nature of responses to color is acknowledged, and responses about color harmony are understood to occur on a more individual and less universal basis and are more likely to be probabilistic rather than deterministic and predictable [1, 39].
The art historian and theoretician Brandi (1906–1988)  writes that “the significance of words is not things, but the pre-conceptual scheme of things …, in other words, a summary of knowledge of things according to a given society”; the same is for the taste of color, connected with the geographical, historical, and social environment. This notion, which dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers, was also expressed by Hume (1711–1776): “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them” .
Color Harmony as Historical Model
Since all that relates to matters of taste and aesthetic pleasure belongs to the cultural sphere – and is therefore conditioned by, associated with, and subject to myriad factors – the definition of chromatic harmony periodically renews its model, creating new codes for new contents.
In olden times man sought perfection of his surrounds built on symmetry, as in the numeric unit of measurement of Greek temples, whose aesthetic quality comes about through internal, independent ordering of the whole. During the Renaissance, the architect Alberti (1404–1472)  defined beauty as “a harmony of all the parts … fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for the worse”.
The different societies of the world have given rise to its own chromatic spectra, applying different criteria of harmony to the juxtaposition of colors, in a dynamic scheme, related to two essential properties: mimesis and ostentation.
Color Harmony as Mimesis
As in linguistics, there is onomatopoeic harmony, consisting in imitation of natural sounds by means of a phonic impression of the linguistic form, and in the animal kingdom, some creatures take on the chromatic features of the surrounding environment in order to camouflage themselves, so too in certain cultures, manufactured articles are modeled on the colors of the materials of the place in which they are introduced, thereby creating imitative harmony. Uniformity and similarity refer to something preexisting and therefore evoke aesthetic pleasure by reason of the fact that they are pleasing and reassuring.
Color Harmony as Ostentation
And yet, on the other hand, chromatic pleasantness is sought by enriching places with missing colors, so that full-bodied, vibrant, and rich colors stand out against the uniform backgrounds of landscapes, acting, contrary to imitation, through differentiation. In both aesthetic models, mimesis and differentiation, there is harmony when there is unity in multiplicity, ordering the various parts into a coherent whole, when colors in a multi-chromatic background establish a dynamic and balanced relationship among dimension, distribution, saturation, whiteness, and blackness.
Color Harmony in the Society of Permanent Colors
Now that chemical colors deriving from processing petrochemical synthesis can be reproduced limitlessly, there has been a revolution in perception, which initially struck the eye of the viewer but which later accustomed the viewer’s eyes and mind to their fixity and unchanging nature. The environment has again taken on stable yet inert colors.
The invention of the tin tube replacing an animal’s bladder, together with chemical colors, has revolutionized painting, making it more convenient plain air (outdoors) and allowing the experimentation of the pointillists, in the same way as industrial enamel paints have made possible the dripping style painting of Pollock (1912–1956) , while quick-drying acrylic colors have given rise to a certain taste for Warhol’s (1928–1987)  and pop art’s wide-ranging, flat, uniform painting style.
It can be claimed that “abstract art was born with synthetic color, which became the most important and absolute principle of abstraction” .
While Max Bill (1908–1984)  sought chromatic harmony in laws of spatial values and in laws of color movement, distributed on the basis of proportions, Hartung (1904–1989)  was inspired by him in his appreciation of the energy of vinyl colors, which were scratched with different instruments and sprayed with compressors.
Later, after the invention of pearlescent and iridescent paints containing flakes of mica coated in titanium oxides, American minimalist painters covered surfaces with new changeable metallic colors, freed from fixatives. Today, acrylic resin and silicone made possible the work of Pesce (1939) , where the colors blend in three dimensions.
In this concept of harmony, colors are being considered all the more beautiful when they are able to create a perceptive illusion and hide the nature of the material under a uniform permanent patina.
Color Harmony in the Society of Permutable Colors
Nowadays, digital screens are shifting vision from substance to light, prompting an adjustment toward a chromatic panorama characterized by intangibleness and exchangeability.
In art, colored lights alter the perception of the physical place and introduce another space-time dimension. While Flavin (1933–1996)  was among the first to compose environmental works using fluorescent neon tubes, in which floors, walls, and ceilings seemed canceled by the colored light, embracing viewers in a suspended dimensions, nowadays digital media makes limitless experimentation possible. Viola (1951) , a veritable maestro, treats his works with a chromatic pattern making them similar to a painting, with a soft painting-like light running through them, a light that immerses the viewer in an emotional, sensorial experience taking place in an intermediate, part-natural and part-artificial space, which is both real and unreal. Toderi (1963) , an up-and-coming Italian video artist, transforms her urban film shooting into luminous stellar spaces, linking heaven and earth in a pulsating flow.
Color harmony nowadays is becoming dematerialized, exchanging artificial light which cancels materials, space, and time.
Giulio Carlo Argan wrote that “recognizing beauty is an act of justice and a sentimental act, meaning an act which confers value” .
In this way, as all that relates to matters of taste and aesthetic pleasure belongs to the cultural sphere – and is therefore conditioned by, associated with, and subject to myriad factors – so also the definition of chromatic harmony is related to culturally accepted notions of taste and beauty. Given the changeable nature of notions such as beauty, taste, and aesthetic pleasure, any models to predict such are open to periodic renewal, creating new models or codes for new contexts.
- 2.Rumford, T.B.: Recherche sur la Couleur. Paul Migne, Paris (1804)Google Scholar
- 3.Goethe, J.W.: Zur Farbenlehre. Cotta, Tübingen (1810)Google Scholar
- 4.Chevreul, M.E.: The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours. Bell and Daldy, Cambridge (1879)Google Scholar
- 5.Noon, P., et al.: Delacroix. In: Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism, p. 58. Tate Publishing, London (2003)Google Scholar
- 6.“Seurat”: Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, New York (2007)Google Scholar
- 7.Ferretti-Bocquillon, M., et al.: Signac, 1863–1935. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2001)Google Scholar
- 8.Hölzel, A.: Lehre von der harmonischen Áquivalenz. Longen, München (1910)Google Scholar
- 9.Kandinsky, W.: The Art of Spiritual Harmony. Houghton Mifflin, London (1914)Google Scholar
- 10.Klee, P.: Pedagogisches Skizzenbuch. Longen, München (1925)Google Scholar
- 11.Itten, J.: The art of color. Van Rostand Reinhold, New York (1961)Google Scholar
- 12.Albers, J.: Interaction of Color. Yale University (1975)Google Scholar
- 13.Moholy-Nagy, L.: Vision in Motion. Theobald, Chicago (1961)Google Scholar
- 14.Droste, M.: Bauhaus 1919–1933. (Bauhaus Archiv) - Taschen/Vince K (2003)Google Scholar
- 15.Krawkow, G.V.: Das Farbsehen. Akad Verlag, Berlin (1955)Google Scholar
- 16.Newton, I.: The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. University of California Press (1999)Google Scholar
- 17.Hoffmann, J.L.: Versuch einer Geschichte der malerischen Harmonie uberhaupt und der Farbenharmonie insbesondere. Hendel, Halle (1786)Google Scholar
- 18.Runge, P.O.: Die Farbenkugel. Nossack, Hamburg (1810)Google Scholar
- 20.Plochere, G.: Plochere Color System. Vista, Los Angeles (1948)Google Scholar
- 21.Pfeiffer, H.E.: L’harmonie des couleurs. Dunod, Paris (1966)Google Scholar
- 22.Rosentsthiel, C.: Traité de la couleur. Dunod, Paris (1934)Google Scholar
- 23.Fechner, G.T.: Element der Psychophysik. Breitkopf und Hârtel, Leipzig (1860)Google Scholar
- 24.Munsell, A.H.: Munsell Book of Color. MunselI Colour Co., Baltimore (1942)Google Scholar
- 25.Munsell, A.H.: A Grammar of Color. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York (1969)Google Scholar
- 27.Moon, M., Spencer, D.E.: Aesthetic measure applied to color harmony. J. Opt. Soc. Am. 34, 4 (1944)Google Scholar
- 29.Boring, E.G.: History of Experimental Psychology. Apleton-Century-Crofst, New York (1950)Google Scholar
- 30.Mori, N., Nayatani, V., Tsujimoto, A., Ikeda, J., Namba, S.: An appraisal of two-colour harmony by paired comparison method. Acta Chromatica (Tokyo) 1, 22 (1967)Google Scholar
- 31.Katz, D.: The World of Colour. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, London (1935)Google Scholar
- 32.Gelb, A. (1929) Die Farbenkonstanz der dr hendinge. In A. Bethe, P. Bergman (eds) Handbuch de normalen und pathologischen Physiologie. Springer, Berlin, p. 594Google Scholar
- 33.Granit, R.: Sensory mechanisms of the retina. Oxford University Press, London (1947)Google Scholar
- 34.Matiss, H.: Les notices d, une peintre. Dounod, Paris (1908)Google Scholar
- 35.“Piet Mondrian”, Tate gallery, published in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London (1981)Google Scholar
- 36.Nemcsics, A.: Colour Dynamics. Environmental Colour Design. Ellis Horwood, New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/Tokyo/Singapore (1993)Google Scholar
- 40.Brandi, C.: Art Italian. Art, Milano (1985)Google Scholar
- 41.Hume, D.: Natural History of Religion. vB.Co., Edinburgh (1952)Google Scholar
- 42.Alberti, L.B.: De pictura, James Leon. Bázel (1540)Google Scholar
- 43.Polloch, P.J.: Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center, New York (2000)Google Scholar
- 44.Warhol, A.: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again). Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York (1975)Google Scholar
- 45.Brusatin, M.: Colore senza nome. Marsilio, Venice (2006)Google Scholar
- 46.Bill, M.: Funktion und Funktionalismus. Schriften 1945–1988. Benteli, Bern (2008)Google Scholar
- 47.Hartung, H., Alley, R.: Hans Hartung. Oxford Art Online (2001)Google Scholar
- 48.Pesce: Design Excellence Award of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2005)Google Scholar
- 49.Flavin, D.: The Complete Lights, 1961–1996 by Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell, p. 49. Yale University Press, New Haven (2004)Google Scholar
- 50.Bill Viola: The Eye of the Heart. Dir. Mark Kidal [DVD]. Film for the Humanities & Sciences (2005)Google Scholar
- 51.Grazia Toderi. Charta, Milà (2004)Google Scholar
- 52.Argan, G.C.: Design e Mass Media. Op. cit. Milano (1965)Google Scholar