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Saturday, April 23, 2011

It's Set in the Key

This is my vacation piece.  I'll be on medical sabbatical for a little while getting my right hand--my dominant one--repaired and recuperated.

Meanwhile, this is fun:

2700 years ago a Greek philosopher named Pythagoras standardized musical tuning into a system he called the Circle of Fifths.   It was he who diagrammed the relationship of our twelve major keys, an invaluable tool for composers and musicians in Western music.

 Within Pythagoras' Circle of Fifths, we can locate any key and find its related chords.  Here's how it looks:

The Circle of Fifths designed by Pythagoras in the 6th century, BC
(Disclaimer:  This particular design of Pythagoras diagram is posted on several internet sites.  It is unclear to whom it should be credited.)

To see how this works, locate C on the circle.  Glance to the left of C and you'll see F, look to the right to find G.  C, F and G are the three major chords in the key of C.  In the little circle underneath them are the minor chords related to the key of C.

Now here's the fun part: four hundred years ago the traditional Color Wheel was diagrammed  by Sir Isaac Newton.  This wheel also is a twelve-part unit.
The traditional Color Wheel as designed by Sir Isaac Newton in the 1600's.
No different from the Circle of Fifth's importance to musicians, the Color Wheel is the work horse of visual artists.  The more a musician learns about the Circle of Fifths, the richer the music can be, and the more a visual artist learns about the Color Wheel, the more fertile the possibilities are in painting and design.

And not unlike how a composer sets a musical piece in a key, the artist has the ability to set the key of a painting, giving it the same sort of unity as a key gives a piece of music.

Left   "Weaver" by Richard Schmid
   Right   In a Moscow Cafe"  by Robert Genn

The paintings above are similar in that each features a person engaged in doing something, but their major difference is their key.   Robert Genn's has keyed his piece in cool colors (colors in the bluish range) whereas Richard Schmid's painting is keyed in warm colors (colors in the yellow/red range).

Here is how each is positioned on Newton's Color Wheel:

Schmid and Genn paintings each placed in their key of colors. 

What's so much fun about all this is the similarity between the two diagrams we artists and musicians depend upon and the many parallels in the ways they are used.

And once my hands are working again, I plan to explore this in upcoming tutorials.  Meanwhile, enjoy this thought:  however you look at it, everything is connected.


William Cook said...

What perfect sense this all makes. Thank you. And also thank you for finally telling me what a notan is. I've been doing all this instinctively--never realized there was a reasonable way to discuss it. I've been referring to this as being rhythms and have become very excited in just the essential linear aspects of them. The greater tonal rhythms open up whole new vistas, in terms of approach that could keep me occupied for a while. Wonderful posts. Wm

Marianne (dagmar.eu@gmail.com) said...

Thank you very much for sharing this. I did not know of the Circle of Fifths not being at all musical. Do you think that the colours some people see when they listen to music is in any way connected to which key the music is in?

Katherine van Schoonhoven said...

I have just discovered your blog after seeing the link to it on Casey Klahn's "The Colorist" blog yesterday. So, I guess I am just following Casey's lead.

I enjoy seeing your suggestions about the connections between art, music, and literature!

While the key sets up the structure for the painting or composition, it is often the unexpected "off" color or chord that raises the hairs on my neck and makes my breath catch.

I look forward to hearing more and hope that your hands heal quickly! Thank you for sharing with such generosity!!

Mike said...

After an hour of browsing through your blog, Dianne, I am SOLD! I teach a workshop to watercolor painters entitled "Watercolor Beyond the Obvious." That class deals exactly with the elements and principles of design as you have put them here for the world to see. This is extraordinary teaching here!! Hats off to you for your focus and keen articulation! I am a fan!

Anamaria said...

What a wondeful post! I'm so sorry my mother tongue is portuguese, so it's difficult for me to express how much I enjoy your blog, I dont find the perfect words. Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. Hugs from Brasil, hoping you recover soon