Posted by Steve Price on 12-09-2005 01:20 PM:

Completely subjective?

Hi John

I was surprised to find no objective criteria for deciding whether colors are harmonious. Expected that, as with sounds, there would be quantitative aspects of the stimuli that render them harmonious or dissonant. The purely subjective nature of the criteria seem to me to leave little room for evidence beyond the "I like this, I don't like that" or, "most people agree, so it is probably true" sorts of arguments.

I can't help suspecting that there is an underlying set of objective criteria on which the subjective ones rest. Perhaps those will become clearer as the discussion proceeds.

I enjoyed reading the essay.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 12-09-2005 05:19 PM:

Hi Steve -

There are undoubtedly a number of folks who agree with you. I know that Ned Long has argued vehemently for at least a standard set of descriptions for colors and I think this has a scientific basis.

Here are two web sites that seem to suggest something of the state of things at the moment:

I know nothing of the quality of these two sources, but they suggest that others are aligned with your concerns.

Don't think we're there yet, but perhaps I am merely uniformed.

It would be useful to know if someone has described something like "color harmony" using objective "light band" data.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 12-09-2005 06:40 PM:

Hi John

Any color can be described precisely, in objective terms, by its reflectance spectrum (which is a quantitative representation of the variation in its ability to absorb and reflect light of different wavelengths).

My concern wasn't whether colors can be described objectively, but whether color harmony can be described objectively (as musical harmony can). My guess is that it is possible to do so, and that the terms used by painters are conventionalized ways of doing it, just as musicians use words to describe harmony and dissonance in conversation.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 12-10-2005 07:13 AM:

Hi Steve -

I looked around the web as I wrote the salon essay, looking for some systematic, even scientific basis for talking about color harmony.

There are folks that offer systems of calculation. Here are two such sites:

My sense is that these folks are on the edge of what might be called "interior decorating" rather than "science" so their systems may not be as rigorously based as we would prefer.

But there are also sites that suggest that such notions as color harmony are potentially much more complicated than we might at first think. Here are some sites that suggest such complexity.

There is agreement that the least satisfactory way to talk about color and such things as color harmony is with language (what we mostly do as collectors).

I would be interested to know if someone comes unto a scientifically based method for calculating color harmony (and color dissonance, for that matter.)


R. John Howe

Posted by Tim Adam on 12-10-2005 09:22 AM:

Hi John,

These are great links. Finally, I have a quick way to find matching color schemes for my slides.



Posted by Richard Farber on 12-15-2005 09:43 AM:

harmony does not mean the same thing in music as it does in pictorial arts

dear steve

"harmony" in the scene of what is considered consonant and what is considered dissonant and what is considered a mistake or outside the pale is a question of period and place.

harmony is music exists in time and needs both consonance an dissonce to create a feeling of movement and of resolution or end.

i dont think that color harmony in carpets which takes place in mostly in space [of course there is movement in viewing a carpet and or moving around it] can be simply equated to harmony in music which almost entirely deals in time.

the study of harmony in music deals with a few parameters and does not mean the same as beautiful. there is a lot of boring music out there which has perfectly "correct" harmony according to some system or other that nobody wants to hear and is surely not beautiful ... or even "harmonious" which is a classical attribut of beauty [as opposed to a romantic one].

n.b. thank you mr howe for the essay and scources.

on a personal note harmony is not a concern of mine when i compose . . . texture for one example is

Posted by Steve Price on 12-15-2005 10:06 AM:

Hi Richard

Thanks for the explanation. My point was that if there is a more or less objective definition of color harmony that is in use (and, apparently, there is, based on complementary colors), we ought to find out what it is and use it. It appeared to me that personal like or dislike was being called color harmony, which didn't seem (to me) likely to take us very far.


Steve Price

Posted by Richard Farber on 12-15-2005 01:53 PM:

dear steve

thank you . . . that is clear . . . and i surely would agree that if there can be terms used that have more or less agreed upon meaning then we should use them.

i used the term "texture" and it seems to be understood in relationship to music . . . i could have said counterpoint.


richard farber