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Understanding Complementary Colors for Beginners

Complementary Colors


Complementary colors are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. That’s all very interesting, but of what use is this knowledge?  Well, as an artist, understanding complementary colors can be very useful in your art work. Let me explain, without all of the technical jargon.


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paint pots with text complementary colors and how to use them



Basic Complementary Colors

I have already gone over the primary colors and how to mix secondary colors. Refer back to my post on Color Mixing if you need a refresher.

The basic complimentary colors are one primary color and its opposite on the color wheel, which is a mix of the two other primary colors. 


color wheel



So the complementary color to red is green, which is a mix of the other two primaries – yellow and blue.

The complement to blue is orange, which is a mix of yellow and red.

The complement to yellow is purple, which is a mix of red and blue.

Confusing, I know. Have a look at this chart, it may explain it a little better.


Complementary color chart


Tertiary Colors

These are the basic primary complementary colors. The tertiary colors, those made up of one primary and one secondary color, also have complementary colors.

All the colors on the color wheel have complimentary colors that are opposite to them on the wheel.

Consider purchasing your own color wheel like this one that I use. You can refer to it as you work to help you mix the appropriate colors.



Color Wheel



Using Complementary Colors

So, now that we have that straight, how do we use this information?

To begin with, mixing a color with a very small amount of its complement can tone down that color.

For example, if your red is too vibrant, mixing it with a little diluted green can tone it down. The more green you add, the darker the red becomes.

This is useful for producing shadows or mixing neutral browns or grays.

Complementary colors can also be used to enhance the vibrancy of its opposite color.

If you paint blue or yellow flowers on a field of green grass, the blues and yellows tend to blend into the grass. This is because green is a combination of blue and yellow.

If, however, you paint red flowers on a sea of green, both colors become more vibrant because of the natural contrast. They “complement” each other. 



collage of three pictures showing purple flowers, yellow flowers and red flowers in green fields



Mixing Colors

As you can see, mixing the three primary colors, red, blue and yellow, in various concentrations, can give you unlimited color variations.

Add a little complementary color to get shadows, add more to create more neutral earthy tones.

Mix all three primary colors in equal amounts to get a deep warm brown or black, depending on the concentration of pigment and quality of the paint. 



The Color Wheel

A color wheel is a valuable tool for an artist. Get yourself a color wheel and practice mixing the complementary colors.

Make swatches to keep for reference and make notes of which colors you mixed and in what ratios. This will help you if you are ever stuck on how to add vibrancy or shadows to your paintings.

Remember too, there are slight variations in colors between brands, so you may get a slightly different result depending on what brand of paint you use. I hope you enjoy experimenting.

Thanks for reading.

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly









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