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The complementary color scheme-part 2/2 (techniques of implementing)-Blog 16

This blog titled “The complementary color scheme-part 2/2 (techniques of implementing)-Blog 16” is in continuation of my earlier blog titled “The complementary color scheme-part 1/2 (examples in nature, and in art)-Blog 15”. Here we shall discuss the techniques that the artists use for implementing the complementary color scheme in their paintings.

Excerpts from blog 15

In blog 15 we observed some examples of the scheme in nature. We also discussed some examples of paintings in which the famous artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet adopted the complementary color scheme with striking effect.

The color wheel that we used for discussion has 3 primaries R, Y, and B. When mixed with each other, these lead to 3 secondaries O, G, and V. When these 6 are mixed, we get 6 tertiaries YG, BG, BV, RV, RO, and OY. The colors that are directly opposite on the color wheel are called the complementary colors. Thus Green is complementary of Red, Blue-Violet is complementary of Orange-Yellow and so on.

Image of Color wheel with 12 colors 

Why complementary colors appeal to the eye is because the presence of two opposite colors provides rest to the eye. M. E. Chevreul’s observed that if one were to keep staring at a colored circle on a white background for some time and then close the eye, the opposite color appears in the brain. According to John Sloan, the complementary colors should be used together for best results in a painting. With this in mind the artists can use complements by (a) mixing them (b) underpainting one below the other (c) over painting/glazing one over the other. True complementary colors neutralise accurately and make beautiful colors when mixed together in proper proportions. They complement each other when used together well.

Now we come to the current blog

The concept of Full intensity, Neutral, and Semi-Neutral colors:

For learning the techniques of implementing complementary color scheme in our painting, we first need to understand these 3 definitions of colors.

Full intensity colors are the colors in pure state on the outer circle of the color wheel. All the 12 colors that we saw on our color wheel are the full intensity colors. Tubes of these colors may be bought straight from the market. Sometimes the nomenclatures may not be generic like the ones we wrote on our color wheel, as different manufacturers may have their own names for these.

Artists have found that when these full intensity complementaries are used over large areas in a painting, the result is  overwhelming and rather too loud. Therefore full intensity complementaries are usually incorporated in a painting only over small areas. Such discriminate use is very appealing to the eyes as it accentuates the effect of complementariness.

Full intensity Blue and full intensity Orange overwhelm the eyes, even in nature

Neutral colors are the colors obtained by mixing two complementaries (pure colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel) in such proportion that neither of the pure colors can be seen in the mixture. What is obtained is what appears in the centre of the color wheel. Any two complementaries when fully neutralised look nearly similar since they reach the same centre of the wheel. The appearance of a neutral color is dull and muddy. So, the artists do not mix the two complementary colors to the extent of full neutralisation.

Semi-neutral colors are colors that are obtained by partially reducing the intensity of pure colors. This is achieved by one of the four methods of mixing. These four methods of mixing, described below, are also called 4 methods of Semi-neutralising.

1. Mixing little bit of one pure color into its complementary color. Thus, a bit of blue in orange (orange semi-neutralised) or bit of orange in blue (blue semi-neutralised) would be termed semi-neutralising the colors. How much bit of one pure into the opposite pure is a matter of artist’s choice and it could/should be different in different areas of a painting. Use of complementary colors semi-neutralised in this manner makes painting sing.

Image of Vasant Ritu-10

My painting Vasant Ritu uses yellow and violet complementaries. Violet has been semi-neutralised by adding yello at some places and black at another

2. Mixing little bit of white in a pure color reduces intensity of the pure color leading to its semi-neutralisation. Both the complementaries can thus be semi-neutralised by adding a bit of white in each. This technique imparts it a pastel appearance. This pastel effect makes painting serene and peaceful.

3. Mixing black to a pure color makes it darker. This is another interesting method of semi-neutralising a pure color. What kind of black is important to know. In Acrylic and in Oil mediums, one may use the black that comes straight from the tube. It is not so in the case of watercolors. The black that comes straight from the tube in watercolors is highly opaque and it imparts starkness to the color or a hole in the painting. Therefore, in watercolors one obtains black by mixing colors. Bamboo Green+Alizarin Crimson+French Ultramarine gives black. Burnt Sienna+Prussian Blue or French Ultramarine+ Carmine or Brown madder+French Ultramarine are some more combinations. Exceptionally one may use the black from the tube to achieve some special effect.

The diagram above explains the 3 ways of achieving semi-neutrals. Semi-neutralising by mixing 2 pure colors (cerulean blue and cadmium red), mixing white to a pure color (white to cadmium red or white to cerulean blue), mixing black to a pure color (black to cadmium red or black to cerulean blue )

Black has been used by Jan Vermeer to semi neutralise orange as well as blue.White too has been used to semi-neutralise blue

4. Mixing grey (white and black together) to a pure color imparts dullness to the painting and therefore this method of semi-neutralising is seldom used.

In the diagram below one can see the relationship between pure, semi-neutral and neutral colors. When pure orange is added in small quantity to its complementary blue, we get prussian blue that lies inside the color wheel on the line connecting orange and blue. It lies closer to blue. On the other hand when we add pure blue in small quantity to its complementary orange, we get light red, that lies closer to orange.  When the quantity of blue is increased we get burnt umber, that shifts farther away from orange. Since these 3 semi-neutrals are very popular with artists, these can also be bought straight from the market in tubes, instead of mixing.

Diagram explaining the relationship between complementaries, the semi-neutrals, and the neutral

Applying colors to create semi-neutrals

Above, we discussed the definition and characteristics of full intensity, semi-neutral, and neutral complementary colors. We said neutrals of complementaries are too dull (least used), full intensity complementaries are too vibrant (used in small amounts), semi-neutrals are very pleasing (most used). We also discussed 4 types of mixes for getting semi-neutrals. Now we come to 4 ways of applying colors on paper or canvas to create the semi-neutrals. These are:

a. In the standard mixing method the artist uses the conventional watercolor approach and mixes the two complementaries either on the palette or on the painting surface. The proportions of the two complementaries change in favour of one or the other for achieving different visual effects/tones. Use of white or black or both to reduce or enhance intensity of the two complementaries or already semi-neutralised colors is similarly handled on palette or on painting surface.

b. The alla prima method is used in Acrylic or Oil paintings. Instead of blending the colors on surface or on palette, the artist applies the complementary colors in different proportions directly on the painting surface adjacent to or over each other. Similarly the white and the black may be used adjacent to the full intensity or semi-neutralised colors to reduce or enhance the intensity.

c. The pointillist approach of applying colors is to put small strokes of complementary colors side by side. The eye when it sees the painting from a distance mixes the colors in the brain and visualises the semi-neutralised shades, the colors of which depend upon the proportions of the two complementaries. White and black strokes can also be used for reducing or enhancing the intensity respectively.

d. In the glazing method, used in watercolors, the artist applies a layer of color over the dried surface painted in its complementary color. Thus yellow may be painted over violet or violet may be painted over yellow. The amount of color in the wash can be changed to achieve varying shades of semi-neutrals.

The concept of dominant color and subordinate color

Use of equal amounts of the two complementaries (either full intensity or semi-neutral) will not allow the eye to rest anywhere as the two would compete with each other for attention. So the trick is to use one complementary as dominant color and the other as subordinate. So if Blue is dominant the Orange should be subordinate. Further, while the full intensity Blue would be used only in small amounts, the semi-neutralised Blue (with Orange or White or Black) would be used over larger areas. Full intensity Orange would be even less and so would be semi-neutralised Orange (with Blue or White or Black)

Van Gogh used dominant Blue and subordinate Orange in this self portrait. One can see full intensity Blue and Full intensity Orange only in small areas, the larger areas are semi-neutralised by complementary colors or by use of black to darken some Blues and Oranges.

This painting of mine titled Vasant Ritu has dominant Orange and subordinate Blue

Image of the oarsman at chatou

This painting of Renoir has dominant Orange and subordinate Blue, the latter has been semi-neutralised more than the former

Here are some concluding tips

  • To dull down a color without adding black or grey, add a tiny drop of its complement.
  • To make a color stand out, place a tiny accent of its complement next to it.
  • Opposing colors work best when they are of similar intensity.
  • Make one of your Complementary colors the dominant one in your palette.
  • Use various intensities of that dominant color, by adding different proportions of its complement. Then vary the values by adding white to lighten, black to darken or grey to soften.
  • For contrasting accents choose the non-dominant color. Make sure it has a little of the dominant hue mixed in to tone it down a touch. Otherwise these accents will jump out to the eye a bit too much.

Dear reader, with this I end the concluding blog (part 2/2) on 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, and Renoir

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