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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Color in Oils #3: Analogous

The focus of this exercise is to demonstrate color temperature and how it works using an analogous harmony. We will be looking at contrast of temperature and value in two separate exercises.

Analogous colors border each other on the color wheel. An analogous harmony has no more than 4 colors (more than 4 would be discordant). An analogous harmony can include one primary color only (red, yellow or blue) and the colors on either side of it. The colors you choose will depend on your key color and which temperature direction you want to go in which is based on what you are observing (real or imagined) and/or how you feel, or want to feel, about what you are observing (mood).

Here are some examples of analogous harmonies modulated with white.

In the grid below are considered “cool” colors. Here see: Yellow-green, green, blue-green and blue (primary). These colors are in relation to each other. You might not think of the first color as yellow-green but, in relation to the other choices, it is the yellowest of the greens seen here. Tube colors: permanent green light, viridian , phthalo turquoise, cyan blue. You can use whatever tube colors you have, as long as they relate to each other similarly.


In the grid below are considered “warm” colors. In this analogous combination yellow is the primary and orange (because we are looking at a tangerine) is the key color.  Yellow (cadmium yellow light), yellow-orange (cadmium yellow-orange), orange (cad yellow+cad yellow-orange), red-orange (cad orange +cad red light)


We are observing a tangerine in natural and artificial light. The grid above is based on my observation of the fruit in a studio setting. I choose orange as my key color and yellow as the primary for the analogous harmony. (by the way, this grid is by no means perfect and really is just to serve as an illustration of a concept that demonstrates a gradient difference in temperature, value and saturation of each color when mixed with white…some of my colors could be graded more accurately-try to be as accurate as possible! Grid concepts courtesy of Johannes Itten. )

To make things simple and focus only on color temperature we make a color study with as little value shift as possible. This still life has a light source, so value contrast is indicated, but let us see if we can find the relative temperature of the shadow, background, foreground, and subject first before we show value shift.

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Observing the grid with orange as key. Locate a vertical row showing the 4 different  hues at the same value. They may not be all in the same row because of the value of the color to begin with (intrinsic value). Once you’ve located 4 colors of the same value on your grid, use just those to complete the temperature study.


Now, make a second painting showing both temperature and value shift. Below is a beginning study.


Notice how the tangerine looks different in different light environments. My example is shown in a room lit with natural (cool) light with a spotlight (warm) shining on it.

Below see just the natural light without spotlight. Notice the temperature shift between the background (cool) and the ground plane (warm) and the tangerine  (red-orange) with closer roundness (warmer orange) and cast shadow (warmer when compared to cool background).


Below, same tangerine at 11:oo a.m. outside. Notice how cool the surroundings are compared to the tangerine?

These examples demonstrate that the colors of things change in relation to the quality and quantity of light they receive. We can all agree the tangerine is “orange” but interpretation and environmental conditions leave room for variations of orange: red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, etc.


Color temperature is always in relation to the color next to it or surrounding it. We can say red is warm, but in relation to red-orange, it is cooler. The closer to yellow red is, the warmer, the closer to blue, the cooler. Seeing is believing, make the grid according to the color wheel sequencing, looking at it, ask yourself which color do I see first (advancing/warmest), last (receding/cooler)?

Analogous harmonies can be up to 4 colors and they can be less than 4 as well. Here is an example of a modulated (white added to show value shifts) analogous with just three hues: Red-Orange, Red  and Red-Violet. Red-Violet is the key, red is the primary.

This example demonstrates the warm and cool aspects of red.



From top to bottom; Red-Orange, Red, Red-Violet.

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I’ve included two additional tools utilized in this painting aside from the usual brushes: palette knife and rubber “brush”. I use these tools to remove paint, soften or blur edges by scraping  and to score into paint (sgraffito) to make texture. I do not confine myself to just one technique or type of tool. I am doing whatever it takes to translate the quality of light. Technique develops with understanding of what it is that you are doing and what it is you want to say with your art.

Color in Oils #2: Monochromatic

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I’m choosing to show you yellow because it has the lightest value. It will be easier to see the mixing. If you use a dark color, you’ll need to add a little white to check to make sure it’s a balanced combination of the pure hue and black.

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Lay out your palette with the pure hue in the upper left, black at the bottom and white over to the right. Three good big blobs.  Between the yellow and black pull off a big blob of yellow and add a little black, continue adding black until you have something in between yellow and black.DSC_0007 2

Next pull off a blob of the mix and place it close to the pure hue. Pull off another blob and place it close to the black so you have 5 blobs of paint total (including the pure hue and black).


Mix a little pure hue (yellow) in the blob closest to yellow. Mix a little black in the blob closest to black.


Continue to add or subtract paint until you see a noticeable difference in the value of each blob.

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Nest, scoop a fair amount off of each blob and make a new row to the right.


Add a little white to each of these new blobs to mix a slightly lighter and cooler value of the first row.

Continue to do this with each row, pulling a blob off of the new mix and adding more white to it until you complete the grid.  Mix each row from left to right separately. This will ensure a seamless transition between each hue in a row.

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Mix the bottom row with only black and white.

Now, make a 1″ or larger grid of 25 squares.

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Pull a bit of paint from each mixed blob and place it onto the grid just as it appears on the palette. Work from left to right again. Wipe the brush off with a soft cloth each time. Do not rinse your brush in solvent between placements.


Jack helps…

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We work from left to right with each color so there isn’t any cross contamination. You need the pure hue to remain pure for comparison.

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Make sure the black row has no contamination. Notice how the black grayscale has a violet cast. This is called simultaneous contrast, where the eye is seeing the complement of yellow on the gray.

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This grid demonstrates the value contrast, or modulation, of a hue using black. From top to bottom and left to right see the lessening in saturation of yellow by adding black and white.

Tone the canvas with mixed hue from somewhere in the middle of your grid. Load a large paintbrush with paint and a touch of Gamsol solvent. Work it into the canvas and wipe the excess away with a soft cotton cloth.

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Now, look around…your eyes ( and brain) are sensitized to which ever color you made the grid of , if yellow, you will notice yellow things more than usual. Pick a simple object or go outside for a plein air painting.

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Make a faint map with a round brush if you need to figure out the composition first (use a cloth to change lines , or solvent to erase). Or just jump in with a tint, tone or shade and work with value shapes.

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Look at your palette and look at your subject. Often, you will see a match somewhere. If you do, start with the match, if you don’t, place a highlight and a dark shadow and then continue as you notice each shift in value, color, brightness, dullness, coolness and and so on.

Use different brush shapes and sizes. Try to avoid painting the whole composition with one small brush…Big brushes for large areas, smaller brushes for detail.

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It takes some practice to find the right amout of paint. Often, we don’t use enough paint…or too much too soon. I’ll scrape some of this paint off with a palette knife and return to the painting tomorrow. You might not get it the first time. Try taking at least three sessions for homework painting. Don’t paint when you are tired and frustrated. Try 30 to 90 minutes each session over three days.

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Here is an example using Williamsburg Brand Alizarin Crimson, Ivory black and Titanium White.

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In this example I use Old Holland Cadmium Yellow-Orange, Ivory Black, and Titanium white.


Notice how the black looks blue in the grid. That’s simultaneous contrast again. The complement of orange is blue. Because of this the gray shades will actually enhance the orange and will appear to be of a color instead of black.

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