Thursday, January 10, 2008

Complements Make People Feel Good

"Royal" - work in progress, 16 x 20" colored pencil on board

Notice that I said "complements" with an E not "compliments" with an I. I thought I would talk today about complements, because I'm using a lot of them on my latest portrait commission (above, vaguely crappy photo).

Back when I was first starting out as an artist, I found color theory about as meaningful as the lyrics to a Foo Fighters song. It seemed like a pointless rationalization of something that ought to be intuitive. Like coming up with a formula for the perfect kiss, or drawing a diagram on how to create a great symphony.

Sigh. Like so many other things I thought when I was starting out, I was wrong. Art is intuitive, but it is also technical. And you should know the rules so that you can break them. Color theory is something everyone ought to know. So. Behold the color wheel. It's probably familiar enough to you that you're saying "so what?"

Everything what, that's what. You'll need to know it to find complementary colors. I have it memorized by now, but I still remember when I didn't. Ah, I was such a young grasshopper.

Complementary colors are colors directly opposite from each other on the color wheel. Yellow-purple. Orange-blue. Green-red. Etc. You can have as many nuances in complementary colors as you have shades of a color.

When used intentionally and thoughtfully, they can subconsciously change the way a viewer sees your painting, to emphasize a subject, create a mood, or create depth (just like composition works subtly behind the scenes). There are two main ways to use them: combining them and using them next to each other in their pure forms.

If you combine (as in mix) two colors opposite each other on the color wheel, you'll dull down the resulting mix. For instance, let's say I have a beautiful yellow color that I'm painting an elephant in my portrait (don't ask questions. Just imagine.). I need to create a sense of depth on this elephant. Something subtle, to indicate that its butt is farther away from the viewer than the honkin' trunk. (did anyone notice that an elephant is like a Porsche? Both of them have the trunks in the front?) I could theoretically put in a bit of a purple into the yellow. It would gray down the yellow and push that yellow backwards in the image.

Or let's say you're painting some grass. You have a pretty nasty grass green color that comes straight out of the paint tube. Mix in some red and I guarantee you'll get a color that looks green but has a subtle depth.

Two complementary colors put next to each other but not combined will make each of the colors seem more vibrant. Blue and gold will become beautifully blue and gold. Green and red will be freakin' Christmas on steroids. Purple and yellow . . . you get the idea. James Gurney has a few illustrations of this on his blog (which as I mentioned before, I highly recommend). And you can see how I chose complementary colors for my portrait. The sky is all blues and purple and the ground is all yellow and orange. The effect in person is an idealized summer day where the color springs off the board.

This is a good thing.

If any of my readers can come up with good examples of paintings that use complementaries (even if they're theirs), please post them in the comments and I'll pull the links out to put in an actual post.


Barbie Bud said...

Hello Maggie, I'm still learning but you might look at the painting I posted on Jan. 6th called Oranges & Ironstone, I used a blue background with oranges. Also I purchased something called a Analogous color wheel. You spin it around, put your dominant hue on the top and it shows your complement color and two discord colors you can add to the painting to draw your eye. You can check it out at, I like it. Barb

Jo Castillo said...

Here are my Pears on Red. Using red and green complements.

Interesting and helpful post, Maggie

Casey Klahn said...

Oh! Oh! Pick Me! Pick Me!

My own spin is that compliments not directly adjacent still create a "pop".

Casey Klahn said...

In case that link didn't work, try this bad boy:


Karen Mathison Schmidt said...

It’s great that you’re teaching about this. Because I LOVE color, when I first started trying to paint seriously, I used to use every color fairly equally, with, um, less than successful results. Then I came across the book The Yin/Yang of Painting by Hongnian Zhang and Lois Woolley, and I finally got color!

I guess it’s pretty basic to most artist’s knowledge, but for me it was a “Helen Keller at the water pump” moment. Now whenever I look at a subject, the first thing I do in my mind is decide what predominant complements to use.

Here’s one I did with a blue/orange palette:

Here’s one with a purple/yellow palette:

And here’s one with a red/green palette:

This last one is a blatant attempt to steer more people toward my latest little painting for sale. :)

Karen Mathison Schmidt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Mathison Schmidt said...

Oh, wait ... here’s an example of a more subtle use of the blue/orange palette (blue/orange is my favorite one to use)

Melanie said...

Excellent post! Have been really thinking more about color... i'm still a young grasshopper :)

but! i posted this yesterday.. and it fits! er works...

Meg Lyman said...

Thanks for the informative post. I love learning about color, even if it still seems tough to apply the technical theory.

One of my favorite color studies, by Lavacat (beware, boobies!):

Here's one of mine:

vivien said...

Good post :) is a post I did on colour mixing and colour theory

a lot of my work uses near complimentaries to create a glow.

Christy said...

Hi Maggie,
I am very much a grasshopper, still having to look at colour wheels as I work. Here is an example of a work I did where I first tried out the colour complement idea. Everything seemed really dull until I read about combining yellow with purple, so I tried putting purple on the white flowers, and that made the flower pop right out from the yellowish leaves.

Lily of the Valley

American Genius said...

I love your play on words.

Cooper Dragonette said...

Hey Maggie, Great entry about the technical aspects of painting. I always told my students exactly that, "First you have to learn the rules before you can break them." Which was in stark contrast to their notion that art was just about anything. As for complementary colors, I always gravitate to the work of Wolf Kahn (
who uses color complements and temperature about as well as anyone could hope to!

Katherine said...

One of the interesting things about complementary colours is deciding which type of colour wheel to use - there are different takes on which are the true complements.

There's also the issue of how to balance complements - because they don't have equal zap. Red/green is always an interesting one for this - very small quantities of red amidst green really stands out.

I'd suggest looking at some of the works of the masters for excellent use of complementary colours - try some Van Goghs for the impact of dark midnight blue/light yellow/orange combinations.

Personally I really like portraits which use green hues for shadows on the face!

vivien said...

an ongoing seascape in blue/purple vs orange/yellow slightly neutralised.

dhara said...

Hi maggie!

Love your website, and your work.

in addition to you color topic.
check out also the 'Munsell color system'.
I rather work with his theory. His color wheel is slightly different. The biggest difference from the old three primary system is the relationship between color.
So for example yellow is much closer to red on the munsell system which shift the color complements.
Tthe complements become much more interesting with this munsell color system (but this is my opinion)
Maybe just try out making a color wheel hang it in your workspace and try working with this for a while.

more info is here:

check out his color wheel.


13venkataraga1 said...

Thank you for telling me about complimentary colors. Your work is great!

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