Color in Oils #4: Complementary Colors


First, decide your key. For these lemons I choose the primary color yellow, (not yellow-green or yellow-orange).  On the color wheel, complements are located directly across from each other. Complementary combinations are harmonic and balanced to the eye and brain and show contrast in hue, value, and temperature.

Begin by preparing your palette. I’m not sure where my colors and their tints, tones and shades belong so I make a 25 piece grid to see the mixing potential of the color harmony.

Violet is the complement of primary yellow. In theory violet is composed of the two primaries red and blue. Each complementary combination is derived from the three primaries, red, yellow and blue and their mixtures.

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Begin the grid by mixing the two colors. In this grid, from top to bottom, see pure yellow, yellow with a touch of violet, yellow and violet mixed to make a color independent of the two complements, a touch of yellow in violet and lastly, pure violet.

My tube colors are cadmium yellow light, and ultramarine violet. I find these two pigmentary mixtures produce the most neutral tone when mixed. Complements should mix to produce a neutral, if they don’t, you may need to experiment with other pigments to mix together. The colorist artist Steven Quiller is a good resource for pigment mixing.

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Tone the canvas with a mixture of violet and yellow. Take it from your pre-mixed palette. I pick a darker value in a row close to violet for contrast.

Begin with the pure key hue. Ask, ” where is the pure hue”? The pure hue is most saturated and strong and is used sparingly. Place a few dabs for reference and then return to focus on light and dark/value contrast. Look for highlights and darks and try to get these on the canvas.

Ultimately, it’s all about the relationships between value, hue and temperature.


As it turns out, highlights are cool and so I use a tint of violet.

When complements of the same value are placed right next to each other, they intensify each other. Violet seems more violet, yellow more yellow. When mixed, they neutralize each other.


Now, everywhere I look, I see yellow and violet!

This early morning scene is predominantly yellow and violet and their mixtures. Nature shows us complementary harmonies.


Here, I’m looking at a white gladiola. It’s difficult to determine a key so go with the most prominent color, which is not in the gladiola at all but in the background, red.  The red looks orangey so I’ll start with red-orange and use it’s complement blue-green. Tube colors: Cadmium red-light and cerulean blue.



I choose a tone of red to tone the canvas, but blue would work as well. Blue would create a deeper space with detachment, red comes forward and feels more intimate.


Use a round brush to lay in some proportional measurements. I mix in a little Gamsol solvent with a dark mixture to increase the ease of drafting with a paintbrush. Measuring and accuracy at this stage are important.


I lay in some tints of differing temperatures and some shades to begin to decide what will go where. I am looking to match something on the palette with something in the still life. Scanning for matches of hue/color and value/contrast.


At this point I scrape the paint off the canvas board with a palette knife. Most of the paint has stained the canvas. The palette knife pushes pigment into the weave and removes excess paint to enable more layering. I do not use solvent to remove paint, preferring to scrape it off instead.


At this stage I stop. The natural light on my subject has changed and I don’t want to over mix. Let the contrast of complements excite the painting.


Here is the palette.


Once again, see the combo everywhere!

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