Tips on Tuesday

Complementary Colours

Complementary Colours in Traditional Model
Complementary Colours in Traditional Model

Last week we discussed Secondary Colours and how we might mix them from the Primary Colours that we all think of when mixing paint Red, Yellow and Blue.  I discussed how not all Reds, Yellows and Blue pigments are created equal and how when painting it is good to have two of each of the ‘Primaries’ that lean in opposite directions on the colour wheel and how you would go about creating your own colour wheel to help with your colour mixing.  This week we will talk about Complementary Colours and how you might use them.

In simple terms complementary colours sit opposite each other on the colour wheel.  They can be used in two different ways, you can mix a small amount of a colours complement to dull it down or larger amounts to ‘grey’ it.  You can also put the complementary colours next to each other on your canvas to make your colours more vibrant to make them  ‘sing’.  So by using complements in a painting you can enhance the effects of the colour.

Ok, so this seems easy red-green, blue-orange, yellow-violet are all in theory complements. But….

Complementary Colours – Mixing vs. Visual Complements

I was reading an article in ‘The Artist’ by Hilary Page and she was explaining about a whole new scientific theory on what the complements are, it is a fantastic article and well worth a read.  She uses the mixing complements red-green, blue-orange and yellow-violet but looks at ‘visual’ complements in a whole different light.

So from this article it is my understanding that science shows that colours peak their wavelengths in different places and when you look at colours that are neutral (greys, black and white) they are flat lined.  Hence if you add two complements together you get a flat lined result.  And here is the thing – the flat lined result is not  produced from the complements that we get from our colour wheel, the one I have been working on with you in class!

Hilary suggests it is scientifically proven that the complement of yellow is not violet it is blue because it is blue and yellow that peak in a way that combined form a flat line.  She also suggests a whole host of other complements within a table for you to try.

I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment…. I remembered that when I was preparing the Sunflower Workshop I realised that I had tried Violet as a Complement to the Yellow but I noticed that in many cases and in the example I eventually used for the Workshop that I preferred the Yellow-Blue combination, I had been unable to understand why this, to my eye, had popped more, so to me this makes sense.

When we are looking at a picture we are following visual rules rather than mixing rules… this brings us to the Additive vs. Subtractive Colour Wheel.

Additive vs. Subtractive Colour Wheel

Picture of an Additive and a Subtractive Colour Wheel
Additive vs. Subtractive Colour Wheels

Here we have a photo taken from an Art and Theory blog, this illustrates the Additive or RGB wheel, representing light so for example our computer screens mix colour using this wheel; it is an additive wheel as buy adding all the primaries together you will get white.

Whereas in a subtractive colour wheel which is the type of colour wheel used when mixing pigment in for example inkjets and also for pigments i.e. our painting it is a CMYK colour wheel.

When pigments are added together they make an optical black so our paint uses a subtractive system, further information on Additive Colour vs. Subtractive Colour including a pigment colour wheel can be found here.


Complementary Colours and the Colour Wheel

So when Hilary Page talks about ‘mixing’ vs. ‘visual’ complements she is talking about the use of two colour systems, the subtractive for the colour ‘mixing complements’ and the additive for the ‘visual complements’ as it is how light is seen by the eye that counts when seeing something visually.

Interesting!  Well it is for me…

But then really it doesn’t much matter, I think as long as we take on board what can help with our paintings that is all that matters so if you look at Hilary Page’s Complementary Colour table you can see that her complements for visual are the opposite of either of these wheels, she provides some great examples for us to try out, so I’m going to try them, hopefully in class too… maybe we can re-look at what we are classing as primaries – Cyan, Magenta and Yellow.

Next term I will be looking at tone as our underlying theme but including some colour theory so I may well look at our new slant on Secondary Colours too.

Next week in this blog I am going to go into a little more detail on Tertiary Colours and how we mix them.




Tips on Tuesday – Complementary Colours

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