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The complementary color scheme-part 1/2 (examples in nature, and in art)-Blog 15

Artists use several color schemes based on color wheel and color theory. This blog will introduce an important color scheme called the complementary color scheme. We will see some examples where this scheme has been adopted by nature. From the eye of an artist, we will see some paintings of world famous painters who have used this scheme very well in some of their paintings.

In another blog (part 2/2) we will discuss the methodology (the technique) used by artists in implementing the complementary scheme.

We take help of the color wheel to understand what are complementary colors. The conventional RYB (red-yellow-blue) color wheel looks like this.

Image of color wheel with 12 colors

The primary colors (shown at the 3 corners of triangle in the wheel) are yellow, blue, and red.

The Secondary colors are obtained by mixing two primaries. We get green by mixing yellow and blue. Violet is obtained by mixing blue and red. Orange is obtained by mixing red and yellow. Thus we get 3 secondaries.

The Tertiary colors are obtained by mixing a primary and one of the two adjacent secondaries. Yellow and green give yellow-green, blue and green give blue-green. Similarly we get blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-orange. There are 6 tertiaries.

These 12 colors ( 3 primaries, 3 secondaries, and 6 tertiaries) are the foundation of all the color schemes that artists use in their paintings. Any two (out of these 12) directly opposite colors on this color wheel are called complementary colors. Yellow is complementary of violet, blue-green is complementary of red-orange and so on.

In Stephen Quiller’s (the famous American colorist and writer of book color choices) words, the complementary colors neutralise each other to an accurate neutral, make beautiful neutral colors when mixed together, and complement each other when used together well in a color scheme. John Sloan, the great American Painter, advises that painters should think of complementary colors as opposite ends of one color and should be envisioned together for best results in a painting. With this in mind the artist use them not only while mixing but also while under painting or over painting or glazing color over color.

Color theories all began with M.E. Chevreul (1786-1889), a French scientist who was interested in art. His book The principles of harmony and contrast of colors became a bible for impressionists, post impressionists, and also many famous American painters including Winslow Homer (1836-1910). He discovered that the eye actually seeks a balance by providing the complementary color.

Use of pure complementary colors can be overwhelming to the eye. It may create too much vibration. Artists therefore semi-neutralize the complementaries to make paintings really sing. There are different ways of neutralising pure colors and we will discuss this aspect in another blog (part 2/2).

Use of Complementary colors next to each other gives very striking appearance and nature uses this principle in several cases.

Here are some examples in nature

                                                                    
                                                                               Yellow-Violet Viola Flowers

                                                                      Red-violet and yellow-green Coleus plant

                                                                   
                                                                     Red Tulips and Green stems

                                                                        Blue and Orange in this bird

                                                             Blue and Orange sky imparting a striking appearance

Some examples in Art

In 1872, Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise, a tiny but vivid orange sun and some orange light reflected on the clouds and water in the centre of a hazy blue landscape. This painting, with its striking use of the complementary colors orange and blue, gave its name to the impressionist movement. Monet was familiar with the science of complementary colors, and used them with enthusiasm. He wrote in 1888, “color makes its impact from contrasts rather than from its inherent qualities….the primary colors seem more brilliant when they are in contrast with their complementary colors.”

                                                                  Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet (1872)

Orange and blue became an important combination for all the impressionist painters. They all had studied the recent books on color theory, and they knew that orange placed next to blue made both colors much brighter. Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) painted boats with stripes of chrome orange paint straight from the tube.

Image of the oarsman at chatou

                                        Oarsmen at Chatou by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1879)

Renoir knew that orange and blue brightened each other when put side by side.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was especially known for using this technique; he created his own oranges with mixtures of yellow, ochre and red, and placed them next to slashes of sienna red and bottle green, and below a sky of turbulent blue and violet. He also put an orange moon and stars in a cobalt blue sky. He wrote to his brother Theo of “searching for oppositions of blue with orange, of red with green, of yellow with purple, searching for broken colors and neutral colors to harmonize the brutality of extremes, trying to make the colors intense, and not a harmony of greys.”

                                                                    Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

The painting features orange stars and an orange moon against sky of blue and violet

Describing his painting, The Night Café, to his brother Theo in 1888, Van Gogh wrote: “I sought to express with red and green the terrible human passions. The hall is blood red and pale yellow, with a green billiard table in the center, and four lamps of lemon yellow, with rays of orange and green. Everywhere it is a battle and antithesis of the most different reds and greens.”

                                                                   The Night Café by Vincent van Gogh (1888)

Van Gogh used red and green to express what he called “the terrible human passions”.


                                                                          Cafe’ terrace at night by Van Gogh

The painting uses orange and blue for a striking impact on eyes

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) lived much before Chevreul (1786-1889). Obviously he had not read latter’s color theory of contrasts and harmonies, yet he adopted the blue and orange in his famous paintings.

                                                          Girl with a pearl earring by Johannes Vermeer (1665)

Use of blue and orange, both semi-neutralised with black and white (?)

The Milkmaid (1658) by Johannes Vermeer

Use of blue and orange, both semi-neutralised with black

Use of Red-violet and yellow-green in Vasant Ritu by Vijay Kiyawat

Use of Blue-orange and violet-yellow in Parigrah by Vijay Kiyawat

Some practical uses of complementary colors

Use of orange in raft and life jackets in sea that is normally blue

Dear reader, with this I end the introductory blog (part 1/2) on complementary color scheme. In blog part 2/2 I shall discuss the methodology/the technique that artists use to adopt the complementary color scheme.

I welcome you to give your valuable inputs and comments by clicking “Leave a comment” on top of the post. Please do pass on this blog to your artist and art loving friends.

Acknowledgements: Stephen Quiller’s book Color Choices, Wikipedia for Complementary colors, Web for paintings of Van Gogh, and Johannes Vermeer. 

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