Color in Oils #5: Split Complements

We are using three colors for a split complementary combination. We will mix these colors together and add black and white to them for a full range of saturated and dulled hues in three distinct values each. The interest in this harmony is that we are not producing grayed neutrals through mixing as we would using true complements. Pay attention to warm and cool aspects of the harmony as it will lean either warm or cool. Think about this when you decide your key color.


Looking at these tomatoes and without giving it much thought, I go with red as my key color (green or even blue could be key). If red is key and green is it’s complement, what are the colors which appear on either side of the complement green on the color wheel? Blue-Green and  Yellow-Green (a “cool” green and a “warm” green). So, tube colors for the split complement are: Red, blue-green, yellow-green. In this example: Cadmium Red Medium, Phthalo blue and Viridian. You can choose any tube colors as long as they appear red, blue-green and yellow-green in relation to each other.  Try to avoid tube complements.


Here see most of the mixtures in a radiating format.

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We’ll use a star template to better express the mixtures of the three colors. I made a template and xeroxed it. Now I must seal the paper to avoid too much absorption of paint. Always seal the surface you oil paint on, otherwise the oil will soak into the substrate  and colors will dull. I’m using a clear gesso so I can still see the star. You can also draw a star directly on canvas paper.

With regular paper, seal both sides to keep warping down. Cheap paper will warp even if treated properly. You can use a heavy watercolor paper, gessoed (sealed), to mitigate warp.

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Sealing the front with clear gesso and the back with regular white gesso.

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Before painting, choose a diverse assortment of brush sizes and shapes to ensure you won’t forget to change brushes and use appropriate sizes. Use the largest brush possible for the area to be painted in.

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Here is the star with red at the top and the split complement to the lower left and lower right.


Mixtures of the split appear in between the major players. Black is added in the star tips to see a more muted aspect of the hue. I didn’t complete the star because I think further mixing the mixes with black will give me too many choices. This is enough for now!

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I’m working on heavy textured water color paper (sealed on both sides with gesso). A strong texture can change the way you paint. In this case I can drag the brush over the peaks of the texture to break the color and let under layers peak through.

I tone the paper with a “wash” of mid red. Basically, mix a tiny bit of solvent into a palette hue mixture and rub it into the texture of the surface to paint on. Let it stain the surface and wipe away excess paint.

I then try to match palette colors with what I’m seeing. When I can’t match I look at the star and consider temperature, cooler colors often belong in the background, warmer in the foreground, etc.  I lay the paint on thick and work quickly not over thinking at this early stage. after about 30 minutes, I stop painting an put it away until tomorrow/later. Sometimes I’ll just unload the entire palette onto the canvas, thoughtfully, instead of throwing any paint away…later, when I look at the painting, preparing to paint again, I’ll notice unusual and interesting effects.


I begin the next session with some changes. I change the color of blue green from cyan to phthalo blue. I scrape the painting with a palette knife to take away texture and excess paint.

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I make temperature choices and exaggerate. I remember to place complements next to each other to make them “pop”. I use neutrals and semi-neutrals in areas of less action.

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There are many split complements with many interesting color combinations. Try some out to see how colors mix. Mixtures will yield vibrant new hues, others may be sultry.

Below see the dynamism of blue, yellow-orange and red-orange. Tube colors: Cyan, cadmium yellow-deep and cadmium red light.

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2 thoughts on “Color in Oils #5: Split Complements

  1. This palette is luscious . I was able to copy my star grid with canvas paper on my printer!! No more excuses. I hope to develop 2 more split complement palettes right away, one for the forest and one for the desert. Edy

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