The way to know how to make colour sing is by knowing about the colour wheel and how complementary colours work. Here is a tutorial to understand the secrets of complementary colours. You’ll be making colour sing in your artworks in no time!
If you know how to use complementary colours, you can mix any colour you want, whenever you want. Even if you only own a small number of tubes of paint!
A Great Book to Inspire You
What are Complementary Colours?
Complements are opposite each other on the colour wheel. Here’s a little colour wheel I did using acrylic paints. The letter abbreviations are for Atelier Interactive colours. I also love using Winsor & Newton. But this information applies to any medium, and any brand.
The three main complementary colour pairs that you need to really get to know are:
- Red <> Green
- Blue <>Orange
- Purple <> Yellow
We say “Red is the complement of Green” and “Green is the complement of Red”.
In order to master colour, you need to be able to remember all these pairs. To start with, it’s a good idea to keep an image of a colour wheel in your mind to visualise which colours are opposite each other. Even better is to paint one! Once you have had a bit of practice using these tricks I’ll show you, you should eventually be able to immediately name the complement (opposite) of any colour whenever you want.
Why are Complementary Colours Useful?
Complementary colours are really useful:
- Place them alongside each other to sparkle up the colour, or make colours sing
- Mix them together to dull the colours down – or “knock back” colours
Making Colour Sing
When you place two opposites, or two complements right alongside one another, they look even brighter than they do on their own. The colours seem to vibrate against one another. Looks at the purple and yellow together below, and the red-green pair.
Knocking Back Colours
When a colour looks too bright or too fluorescent looking, you can make it a bit dustier and dirtier by adding a tiny touch of its complementary colour. For example making a nice natural green for a landscape: add a tiny touch of red into the bright green.
For example, in the image below, the knocked-back blue is dusty blue, still a blue but more muted, like a browny blue. Definitely blue, not brown or grey.
Can you see the other colours in this little sampler – green, orange and purple that have been knocked back with their complements?
It’s very easy to paint with colours straight out of the tube. But when you paint with bright colours all the time paintings can tend to look a little naive. When you know how to knock back colours and you are able to use and control “mouse colours” (muted colours, greys and browns) then your paintings will go up a whole other notch of sophistication. You will be able to mix any colour at all that you want.
- A bright blue sky in summer can become a stormy grey-blue sky in winter
- A bright yellow tablecloth in full sunlight can drop into shadow on the side of the table with a knocked back mustardy yellow.
- Bricks on an old wall will be easy to paint using knocked back reds, oranges, browns and greys.
Knowing complements gives you colour mastery.
Exercise – Understanding How to Knock Back Colours
This exercise can be done in any medium: watercolour, pastel, acrylic, ink or oil.
You only need 3 colours to do this exercise. Any sort of middle “spectrum” or “primary” type of colours will do for these three.
It doesn’t matter too much which three primaries you use for doing this exercise, but my favourites are NRL, CaY, and FUB:
- NRL = Napthol Red Light or another “middle” sort of red (not too orange, not too pink, but just red)
- CaY = Cadmium Yellow Medium
- FUB = French Ultramarine Blue
Let’s get going!
- Take a piece of paper or canvas and rule up an empty grid like this.
- Now mix up a set of secondary colours from your three primaries. (or choose another stick of pastel if that’s what you are using)
- You should now have 6 colours laid out. It is a good idea to lay them out in a circle so they are ordered like a colour wheel – it will help you to understand the exercise much better. The circle should go blue > purple > red > orange > yellow > green > then join back to the blue.
- Now pick up the first primary (blue) and paint it into the square.
- Find the complement of that colour. can you see orange is opposite of blue on the colour wheel? Paint that into the pure secondary box in the bottom row (it should be under the blue)
- Now take a blob of blue and mix into it a tiny tiny amount of orange. Just enough to get a denimy sort of blue, or a dusty blue. Not a yucky brown. Just a blue that is a bit duller and dirtier than the original blue. Look at the blue in the first image as an example. This goes into the box just below the original blue. Take a look at the difference!
Watch out! If you are using Cadmium colours, these are very strong “bully” colours so you need to make sure it is only a tiny amount that you use.
- Now do the same with the orange – take a tiny bit of blue, just enough to mix to the orange to get a dusty, more muted orange. It will look like a terracotta colour. Put that in the final box for this column.
- Now repeat for the second and then the third column.
Remember, the understanding of this exercise lies in the DOING. Don’t just read this exercise. get your brushes out and paint!
Do you understand colours better now? Want to know more? Come and join us in one of our Learn to Paint art classes.
Why not show us your results to the exercise above, or any other way you have used complementary colours in a fascinating way!