Painting with Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are those colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. I love painting with complementary colors. I find it works best when I give the color something to “fight” with.

It creates drama, and drama creates interest. (That’s why reality TV is so successful.)

So if I have a painting that I know will be dominantly green, I will use a purple or pink wash first. If it will be dominantly blue, I might wash it with orange.

In the past I would put down a thin coat of acrylic paint, pretty even and thin, maybe with some modulation as I wiped the excess paint up so the oil paint will stick better. I might grind the color into the tooth (roughness) of the canvas. Then I’ll start painting the dominant color on top.

I took a little bit of a different approach last fall with “Echoes of a Distant Tide” where I dripped light, lavender purple, orange, and red in a stripy, drippy, abstract pattern, then dripped different shades of mint green. The pattern was strong but the values were pretty similar, so it came out kind of subtle, actually. I think I made the red-orange with Cadmium Red Light with a little bit of yellow and a lot of Titanium White.

See the video where I did this.

Then I dripped purples and dark blues and a little bit of black to build up the dark areas.

That’s how I like to work, using complementary colors.

When I painted “Ireland” it started out all pink. Then I added shades of green, plus orange and red to give it drama.

(If you can’t see the video just click here to watch it on YouTube.)

Of course, I don’t always put red and green against each other. Sometimes I shift that a little juxtapose red and teal. These actually “activate” each other better than red and green. I used it a great deal in the painting I did for the Bridges Derby Day silent auction.

Morning Mist 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 20 × 24 inches.

Remember how in college and a little thereafter I used a lot of cerulean with yellow and brown? I call that my “van Gogh” period. This is when I started embracing complementary color and let the contrasting color “shine” through between objects.

Midnight Oil 2002. Oil on canvas, 22 × 30 inches.

The pattern, it seems, is warm vs. cool. Purple can very easily be shifted to a warm or cool color, so it’s hard to pin down where it actually sits. This is probably why I don’t use purple and yellow or yellow-green with each other very much, though I have tried it.


Overpass 2003. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches.

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