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Using Complementary Colours To Improve Your Painting

Updated on May 8, 2014

Colour Wheel

Colour Wheel
Colour Wheel | Source

Understanding Colour Harmony

The quality of your painting can be massively improved by having a little knowledge about colour. I try to impress on my workshop students that it's important to use the colour that your painting needs rather than the colour that you see naturally. For example, when painting the ocean, I usually put in a few orangey pink highlights, as this is a complementary colour to all the blues in the sea.

Unfortunately, I think I may have failed to communicate this well enough to my students, as they now think the orangey/pink highlights are a quirk of mine that I put into all paintings! So, for our next workshop, I've made a simple colour wheel to try and make using colour easier to understand.

Anologous/Adjacent Colours

Colours that are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel work in a harmonious way, creating an image that is pleasing to the eye and a generally restful image, for example using a mixture of blues and blue/greens to create the sea. There is nothing wrong with using these adjacent colours, but the downside of harmonious and restful is dull and boring. If you only ever use harmonious colours, your work can look staid.

Complementary Colours

Buttercups and Bluebells - SOLD
Buttercups and Bluebells - SOLD | Source

Complementary Colours

This is where a good knowledge of the colour wheel can save your work from tedium. In brief, complementary colours are those that lie opposite each other on the colour wheel; they are:

Yellow/Purple

Red/Green

Blue/Orange

If your work is made primarily of adjacent colours, adding a few touches of a complementary colour has the effect of lifting the whole piece. Complementary colours placed next to each other almost jump off the page. Hence my adding a little orangey/pink to ocean scenes. If I were painting a green meadow, at the end, I would add a few touches of bright red, or into a field of lilac bluebells I would scatter some bright yellow buttercups.

The eye doesn't necessarily focus on these highlights, but the painting looks much more exciting.

Sometimes you might wish to use more that one complementary colour. For example you could use a split complementary colour scheme. If I were painting a field of lilac bluebells, rather than adding yellow, which is directly opposite purple on the colour wheel, I may choose to ignore yellow, but add yellow/green and orange/yellow that lie either side of yellow. Using a split complementary colour scheme creates interest and excitement in your work, but without the tension that directly oppostie colours can give.

Photo From How To Draw A Jack Russell

Archie in pastels showing the use of complementary colours.
Archie in pastels showing the use of complementary colours. | Source

Another way of adding interest through colour would be to pair near-complementary colours. For example if painting a green meadow, rather than adding splashes of the directly opposite colour red, I might use a red/violet. Once again, this would still add excitement to the work, but without the tension of truly opposite colours.

It pays to make a simple colour wheel using the materials that you normally work with, in my case pastels, as different materials show different pigments in different ways. Try playing around with a few complementary colours and see what happens. For example, I used blues and greens in the background of my Jack Russell painting, as blue is a directly complementary colour for the orange of his fur, and green is a near-complementary colour. This has the effect of almost making the image appear 3D on the page.

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