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How to Get Color Harmony With the Mother Color Technique

Updated on May 29, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

The mother color technique unifies the color scheme of your painting and creates color harmony. - Image: La Tamise à Charing-Cross de Claude Monet, 1903
The mother color technique unifies the color scheme of your painting and creates color harmony. - Image: La Tamise à Charing-Cross de Claude Monet, 1903 | Source

What Is Color Harmony?

Like notes of a good music, harmonious colors work well together, are pleasant to look at, and create a beautiful and enjoyable painting composition.

Harmonious colors are somehow related to each other, they are usually next to each other in the color wheel.

What Does Mother Color Mean?

Using the mother color technique implies that you pick a color and mix it in every paint color you use in that particular painting, including white.

This unifies the color scheme of your painting and creates color harmony.

How Do You Choose What Color to Use as Mother Color?

The color you pick as your mother color is very important because it will determine the mood of your painting.

In theory you can choose any color. Some artists scrape their palette, and mix together the remaining of a previous painting getting some kind of a grayish color, and use that as mother color for the next painting.

Personally I prefer brighter colors. My recommendation is to pick the mother color so that it works for you for that particular painting. I suggest you pick an important element in your composition (i.e. focal point) and make its color the mother color.

Since you are also toning your canvas with it, you can let little specks of mother color come through all around your paintings, tying it all together. Also, having the ground color already painted, can simplify quite a bit the painting of objects that are that color.

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Prepare Your Palette Pre-Mixing Mother Color into Every color

This technique requires some work ahead of time to pre-mix your palette.

  • Squeeze out your regular paint colors.
  • Pick your mother color.
  • Add to each color a small amount of mother color.
  • Mix with a palette knife.

Spread Mother Color Dots of Paint Throughout Your Palette

As a visual reminder of your painting goal, and also to make future mixing easier, squeeze out several little dots of pure mother color, out of the tube, in your palette’s mixing surface.

Note: while this is a great way to proceed with oils, when using acrylics, since they dry much quicker, you may not want to squeeze out too much paint. The small dots might be dry by the time you need them.

Squeeze out just a couple, and preserve them as visual reminder that you are suppose to mix in some of that color every single time that you get paint from any tube.

Tone Your Canvas with the Mother Color

When using this technique, I always tone my canvas or board with the mother color. This gives huge heads up on unifying the look of the painting.

I like to wipe off the lightest areas of my composition with a rag, to start a very lose drawing.

These wiped areas will still retain some of the toning but will be much lighter in value.

James Gurney is a master painter. He's books are full of great painting advice, especially when it comes to creating harmonious compositions. Check it out!

Watch Out: Don’t Mix Too Much Mother Color into Everything

Only mix a small amount of much mother color in each paint color. Be careful not to overdo it.

The risk here is to obtain lots of color harmony, but loss of value contrast and temperature contrast between the different paint colors. Those contrasts are critical for good results in any painting.

When I Think of Mother Color I Think of Monet

Since the first time I've heard about the Mother Color thechnique, it always reminded me of Monet's paintings.

In particular the Haystacks (or wheat stacks) series, in which Monet painted the same subject at different times of the day and/or different seasons. In these paintings Monet's goal was showing how the color and direction of light and the atmospheric conditions influence color and light of the subject.

Though I have never come across this information in writing, I am pretty sure Monet used the mother color technique in his paintings.

Look at the images below. You can clearly see the color harmony created by the unifying effect the color of light has on the whole painting. That unified effect is exactly what you aim for when using the mother color technique.

Haystacks, end of Summer - Monet, 1891
Haystacks, end of Summer - Monet, 1891 | Source
Haystacks-at-sunset-frosty-weather - Monet, 1891
Haystacks-at-sunset-frosty-weather - Monet, 1891 | Source
Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) by Claude Monet, National Gallery of Scotland, Oil on canvas, 65.00 x 92.00 cm, 1891
Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) by Claude Monet, National Gallery of Scotland, Oil on canvas, 65.00 x 92.00 cm, 1891 | Source

© 2015 Robie Benve

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    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 20 months ago from the short journey

      How about that! :) Whoo Hoo! :)

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 20 months ago from Ohio

      Do you mean the REAL James Gurney stopped by and left a great comment??? Well, I am truly humbled and thankful. When you read books of famous artists that give you ahah moments of deep learning, they become almost unreal, some kind of sacred geniuses. Finding a comment from one of them on my article: priceless. :)))))

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      James gurney 20 months ago

      Great post, and thanks for the shout-out!

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 20 months ago from Ohio

      Hi Susan, You are right, this technique presents some extra challenges when using acrylics, because the pre-mixed colors tend to dry up on you. Here are some possible solutions to that problem: 1. Add a retarder to your acrylic paints, this will slow down drying time. 2. Make sure you keep the paint moist by vaporizing water on it often. 3. You can use the acrylic OPEN from golden, they have a much slower drying time than regular acrylics.

      Hope this helps! Thanks for stopping by and Happy Painting!

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 20 months ago from Ohio

      Yep, never better than experiment yourself, especially when it comes to art! :) Thanks a lot RTalloni for your feedback on my latest hub. Appreciated. :)

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      Susan Wade 20 months ago

      Very interesting article, I'll try the mother color out with my acrylics, even though it's a little challenging to do a lot of pre-mixing, they dry quickly. Nevertheless I'll give it a try!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 20 months ago from the short journey

      Thanks for an interesting read on the unifying effect of using a mother color. Have to agree on Monet. Now I want to go experiment... :)

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