Why Use Complementary Colors in a Painting?

Color is one of those things that seems fairly straightforward, but turns out to be really complicated.

For me, lately I have been exploring using complementary colors as a way to highlight the focus or center of interest of my painting.

Everyone is familiar of course with the color wheel. It dates back to Newton’s experiments with light, though the idea of color and theory of relationships between colors have gone through various revisions, and the concept of RGB color codes makes the colors on this page and other happen.

The French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul (below) seems to get seems to get some of the credit for systematically describing the idea of complementary colors, which he did in his 1839 book The Laws of Contrast of Color. PSM_V27_D450_Michel_Eugene_Chevreul Chevreul’s problem had to do with dyes and tapestry making at the Royal Tapestry Manufactury at Les Gobelins in Paris. The thing was that certain colors of dye looked different depending what other dyes they were near in the finished tapestry, and the tapestry business was all about having bold, consistent colors.

Chevreul found out, among other things, that when two colors touch, the edge where they touch seems to be slightly brighter. Since this was a tapestry, it clearly wasn’t the result of blending colors. It was an optical illusion. And it was a clue that colors aren’t simply properties of nature, that they are not inherent in an object of a particular hue, but that our perceptions of color are formed in our brains, in our process of perceiving color.

Anyways, the important thing is that colors interact in crazy ways in our brains, and sometimes it takes a lot of work and close observation to even be able to tell what is happening.

colourwheel01Complementary colors, of course, are those colors that are directly opposite of each other on the color wheel. So purple complements yellow, blue complements orange, and red complements green.

The word “complementary” to describe this relationship is a little odd, because these color pairings seem to clash together, if anything. For the eye to move from one to the other is a big leap, a leap all the way across the color wheel. They’re garish in a way. Shocking. The combinations leap out at you.

Below are some examples from the internet, and for me these bold combinations of orange and blue really set me on edge. I have a visceral reaction. The combination is electric. It “flashes” so to speak.

Of course this is only the most dramatic use of complementary colors. More subtle uses of complementary colors can have powerful effects too.

On the recent sketch trip I took up Upper Camp Creek road, I focused in particular on using complementary colors to highlight the focus or center of interest of my painting. It was a green green spring day, so the easiest complementary color to use was red, like below.

IMG_0209 copy

Of course the image of the red barn is somewhat cliche, but it is true that the red is a striking contrast to the green of the farmland and hills. (As a side note, because I couldn’t help but google this, farmers used to use linseed oil to paint their barns and they would add rust to the linseed oil, to help kill moss and that sort of thing, which also happened to turn the linseed oil mixture red).

The red of the barn clearly stands out as the most eye catching part of this sketch, which combined with the value contrast set up by the areas of white, help to draw the eye in. (Having the barn more or less at the center of the painting like that probably wasn’t the greatest idea, but that’s another story.)

This painting below, which I did at home based on sketches from that day, was another easy one to set up using red to contrast the green vegetation. Again, the complementary colors paired with the value contrast makes for a pretty powerful tool. (Is the perspective off on the barn? I think maybe a little. But sometimes I look at these things too long and just can’t tell anymore.)

IMG_0212 copy

I tried a similar approach with the painting below (also from the same series of paintings from Upper Camp Creek).

IMG_0247 copy

I feel a little uncertain about how this one turned out. I was trying to push the burnt sienna of the background trees towards red (using alizarin crimson), to contrast withe the green roof. I also added alizarin to the tree trunk color.  I’m not sure it was successful. Did it get a little too washed out? Was the red not concentrated enough? I added a dash of alizarin to the bush in the lower right corner, which I like from a technical point of view (i.e. I added the color at the right time with the right amount of water on the paper) but not sure how much it contributes to what I was going for.

Another thing is that maybe my value contrasts were a little bit off, and the contrast between the green trees in the background and the brown trees in front of them is too strong, while the value differences between the shadowed side of the building and the tree and the edge of the roof, those value differences aren’t strong enough and so can’t compete with the value differences in the background….

I also managed to get a yellow/purple complement between the purpleish shadow of the building and the yellowish vegetation to the left. So there is the green-red combo of the roof and the purple-yellow combo of the side of the building. Maybe with the addition of this second set of complements, there was just too much going on? I’m not sure.

Figure drawing composition

I tried something new recently at the figure drawing session: being more aggressive about my composition. And I was somewhat pleased with the result:

IMG_0210 copy

Usually, I focus on trying to capture the whole figure, like below:
IMG_0175 copy

The task of composition is relatively brief here, simply focusing on fitting the figure on the page, and not making the figure too small, so as to avoid leaving a bunch of white space on the paper around the figure. Often I get a little complacent in this regard: it is possible to more or less allow the model to “set the composition” so to speak, for the particular pose, and either it will be more effective composition from my perspective in the room, or it won’t be, but there is always the next pose to move on to, so a badly composed painting doesn’t matter too much.

But with this particular study, I was really interested in capturing her face. On that day, I had a seat way over in the corner, actually I was sitting on the floor, at the very edge of the half circle that the artists sit in around the model. I could just barely see the model’s face. And I really wanted to make sure that edge of her facial profile was in view. I even made a quick ink sketch to get a sense for whether such a view was even possible.

IMG_0249And I didn’t necessarily set up to “crop” the painting so tightly, but I had focused so closely getting the details of the face that that is just how it ended up. As usual this quick, near disasters seem to produce the best results.

I liked how this extreme sense of closure makes the painting seem more dynamic, more intimate. I also liked how the dark blue value between the face and the edge of the page is 1. fairly small and focused and 2. creates a more interesting shape. Sometimes with the whole figure compositions, all that extra background space is a little bit of a chore to figure out what to do with.

Whole figure compositions can always be powerful, of course, but what I learned is that sometimes experimenting with more “cropping” in composition and a focusing on particular areas of the model can also be interesting and instructive as well.

Figure Session

Figuring drawing session went well on Saturday. It was a great model — as I do this more often, I find myself more sensitive to that vague thing called “a person’s energy.” Being in such intimate proximity to another person (nude in this case) I find the “energy” to be almost palpable.

It started out with one minute poses — this first pose with arms raised was one of my favorites…


And then two minute poses — the model was pregnant by the way


This five minute pose turned out to be another one of my favorites…


As well as this one that was ten or fifteen minutes.


To be honest I find that I do my best right in this ten to fifteen minute range and the 20 to 25 minute poses I find myself getting bogged down in details — at least that is how it has been lately.

This week I tried a little something new with the figure drawing. I put down a quick line drawing with my paint brush (i.e. a representation of the figure using lines). And this is on dry paper. Then I wait briefly for the lines to dry (doesn’t take too long because it is on dry paper) and then I wet the whole paper and add shading. Toilet paper helps to guide the watercolor a little bit more on the wet paper. I was pleased with the results — it gave the watercolor a little bit more movement/blurriness while the lines still keep the figure crisp. I would like to experiment more in this vein, possibly putting down shading/value as a first layer and then adding line.

Willamette Valley Study

Saturday was clear but windy in the southern Willamette valley, coming in briskly from the north as it often does this time of year. I rode my bicycle north, past Coburg on north Coburg road, the wind steady and fierce against my face. I crossed over I-5 on Coleman Road, before heading back south. On the bridge crossing back over I-5, I paused, taking in the view to the east. I did a quick sketch, took a photo, and then kept going. Pedaling of course was much easier going with the wind, almost a sense of silence and stillness as I moved in harmony with the movement of the wind.

Here is the photo that I took, lots of glare because of the low sun.


And here is the sketch:


And here is the water color that I did later at home:


It is always funny how the eye picks out what is most interesting in a scene, and then when you take a picture you get all this stuff that you weren’t really paying attention to. That’s what happened in the this situation: the whole field in the foreground of the photo I was more or less ignoring, yet it dominates the photo. It is almost like there is a composition machine inside of the eye, that works automatically to highlight what is most interesting or beautiful about a scene and ignore the rest. And then when we make paintings we have to try to reproduce in a more systematic and explicit way what the eye already does automatically. It is a frustrating humbling experience, always relearning how to see.

One thing that bothers me about this sketch is how the shadows don’t line up. The ones in the foreground are closer to vertical and the one off of the barn/building is more closer to horizontal. I think that if the barn shadow was closer to vertical, that that would have opened up the middle ground of the painting a little bit too much and taken away some of the illusion of depth.

I also wish I had added a few more layers to the “green grass” section because it seems a little empty and static.

I like how the sky turned out but the orange against the blue mountains (complementary colors) stands out perhaps a little too much, competing with the barn and the high value contrasts there. Perhaps if I had brought a little more orange into the grassy area, it would have balanced things out a little bit more.