Techniques and Tips

Technique: Working With a Complementary Palette

Technique: Working With a Complementary Palette

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Working with a complementary palette can lead to harmonious paintings and the creation of clear, vibrant colors.

By Naomi Ekperigin

Still Life of Egg and Glass,
by Jacob Stevens, 2007,
oil on board, 24 x 18.
Private collection.

For many artists, choosing a palette can be difficult. A palette can be made with as few as three colors, and traditional painting is taught with the rule that the primary colors red, yellow, and blue can be used to make all other hues. However, there are several options for creating harmonious, visually pleasing paintings using a variety of palettes. For some, using complementary colors (those opposite one another on the color wheel) offers a viable alternative to a traditional palette. “Using only two families of color (complementary colors) will naturally give your paintings strength and harmony,” says Joyce Washor in her book Big Art, Small Canvas: Paint Easier, Faster, and Better With Small Oils (North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio). “An infinite number of colors can be mixed with the hues in complementary palettes.” Washor first began working with a complementary palette more than 10 years ago as a student at the Woodstock School of Art, in New York, when she took a class with painter HongNian Zhang. “I was getting a lot of muddy color mixtures, and I found using a complementary palette alleviated this problem–although it took me about two years to really get the hang of it.” The three different palettes she uses are red/green, yellow/purple, and blue/orange, which she employs when working in both oil and watercolor. She determines her palette based on the overall mood of the scene or still life.

Washor now teaches several workshops a year on this technique, and asserts that while it may seem simple, the palette is actually quite complex. “It’s the theory of the complementary palette that makes it so effective. It’s based on the idea of yin and yang,” she says. “All aspects of painting can be interpreted this way: value (dark versus light); composition (up and down or left to right); color temperature (warm versus cool); color intensity (soft versus strong); and color hue (green versus red, orange versus blue, and yellow versus purple).” The artist paints portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, and now primarily paints miniature works. “Small paintings have taught me the art of careful color observation,” she notes in her book. “An object may not be immediately recognizable just by its size, so the color has to be representational in order to identify it.” When preparing a setup, she considers which objects would fit in the color scheme she wishes to work in—her favorite is red/green.

Three Onions,
by Joyce Washor, 2007,
watercolor, 3 x 4.
Collection the artist.
Washor used an orange/blue
palette for this piece.

“In my workshops, the first thing I do is have the students make a color chart,” Washor says. “For example, I lay out all the reds and greens if that’s the palette we’re working with, and have them mix them so that they have an idea of the full range of colors available.” Washor’s red/green palette consists of chrome green, permanent green light, Winsor green, sap green, raw umber, bright red, chrome orange, permanent rose, Indian red, purple madder alizarin, blue black, and Permalba white; her preferred brand is Winsor and Newton. “I explain to students that there are some colors they aren’t going to get. For example, with a red/green palette, a truly vibrant blue is not possible. However, the blue you do get will maintain the harmony of the painting, and when the viewer sees it in relation to the other colors in the piece it will appear blue.” Washor also notes that there seem to be a wider range of grays when working with this type of palette.

Jacob Stevens, an artist based in Tucson, Arizona, began working with a complementary palette for the same reasons as Washor. “I am a professional video game artist, but I work in traditional media such as oil as a way of exploring my technique beyond the digital realm,” he explains. “I had been taught that the primary colors red, yellow, and blue could be used to mix any color. That just didn’t seem true to me—the colors I mixed using the primary colors were dull and muddy compared to the premixed colors I bought at the store.” About a year ago, Stevens began experimenting with alternative color palettes in an attempt to save money on tube colors, as well as to simplify his color mixing yet still create colors that were full of life. Of his several experiments, he has found the complementary color palette to be the most intuitive. “I’m also no longer intimidated by the wide variety of colors offered in art stores because I know I can make any of those colors using a complementary palette,” he adds. Stevens classifies himself as a traditional realist painter, and, like Washor, finds his palette suits a whole host of subjects.

Overturned Vase,
by Joyce Washor, 2007, oil.

Complementary palettes are effective for creating rich color because colors appear most vibrant when placed next to their complements. In much of Washor’s work the results of a complementary palette are many neutral tones spiked with contrasting bursts of color and bright highlights—highlights tempered by their complements, which tie the composition together even tighter. Using complementary colors can also draw the viewer’s eye to your focal point. When mixing colors, Washor recommends using a palette knife to add colors in very small amounts. “If you add too much paint and the color is too far off, discard the pile and start again, but save the pile for future use,” she says in her book. “Ninety percent of the time I find that it’s applicable to another part of the painting. This is another advantage of the complementary palette. Colors are so harmonious that even mistakes are usable.” One of the biggest challenges artists face with this palette is training their eyes to see the subtle nuances in color temperature and intensity. Working slowly and taking ample time to study a subject before picking up a brush helps an artist become more familiar with these subtle variations over time.

Melton, by Jacob Stevens,
2007, oil on board,
18 x 25. Private collection.

Overall, both Washor and Stevens find that a complementary palette has far more benefits than disadvantages. “It takes time to learn to master any kind of palette,” says Washor. Those who are interested in experimenting with a set of complementary colors should be open, patient, and willing to take risks as they discover new ways to render their favorite subjects.

Naomi Ekperigin is the assistant editor for American Artist.

Watch the video: Shade With Complementary Colors. Watercolor Tutorial u0026 Demo (July 2022).


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