# Understanding Colour 3 – Complementary Colours

Complementary colours are the opposite side of the colour spectrum. One way to learn about locating and mixing these colours is to make your own colour wheel.

Like the brief instructed I drew a circle on an A4 sheet of paper ( in my mixed media XL book) with a compass, drew a much smaller circle inside of that and then also with the compass as well as ruler divided up the wheel into 12 separate segments.

Then I tried to mix the colours from Chevreul’s wheel beginning with primary red, red-orange, orange yellow and so on. I worked on the colours I was unsure about several times on a sheet of grey prepared paper but the ones I was confident about I applied directly from the palette.

Colour wheel

As I started writing this up, I realised I may have gone at it a bit too quick and that also laying them on a white background to pair them up may have been betters so I decided to have another go.

This time I tested out all the colours on a grey ground with colour mixes from each of the two colours on white. I could have probably done more colour testing with colour scales between  each but even with the flow-aid the paint was drying fast.

Testing colours

From there I applied the mixes to the colour wheel as I did in the first attempt.

Colour wheel 2nd attempt

The second attempt proved that I didn’t need to do anymore work on this exercise as the hues were the same even though the tones were slightly different. Now I had 2 colour wheels to use for reference in the coming exercises.

# Understanding Colour 3 – Broken or Tertiary Colours

Make a scale between an orange red and a greeny blue. Try to maintain constant tonal values across the scale by adding a little white, as you did in the previous exercise. At the mid point at more white the result should be grey. This is known as a broken or tertiary colour and this type of colour makes up the appearance of much of our world.

In this part of the exercise I worked from brilliant red which had a very orange hue to turqoise as can be seen in the upper scale in the image. The middle mixes are more of a blue-green grey which isn’t very clear from the photo. Working with these orange red and turquoise produced some very interesting and quite pleasant broken colours which did surprise me and it has got me interested in experimenting with colours in future paintings.

Broken or Tertiary Colours

Make a carefully graded scale between a pair of secondary colours choose either orange to violet, green to orange or violet to green. Mix in white to maintain equal tones throughout (the lightest tone is orange). Once again the middle mixes lose chroma to become broken/tertiary colours.

Here I worked with orange to a blue violet but lightened it up with white to take away some of the blue hue. These two colours produced more interesting colours than the first scale, here are some of the colour mixes that I made using these two colours as some are hard to describe, Orange, Ginger, Red-Brown, Chocolate, Grey – Brown, Brown-violet, and various tones of grey-violet.

# Understanding Colour 2 – Primary and secondary colour mixing

First, identify your primary colours. Begin by laying sma ll amounts of pigment onto your palette, arranging them in yellows, reds, blues etc.

Working on an area of your prepared grey ground, lay all the yellows next to each other so that they touch but don’t mix. Notice the difference in hue (the way that one colour is distinguished from another), chroma (the intensity of colour) and tone (how light or dark it is). Arrange the yellows in different sequences and how different juxtapositions alter the appearance of yellows. Make note of which is the more intense yellow.

Continue with this  exercise using both your blues and reds, you will need to mix a bit of white to see the hue of dark reds and blues properly as these pigments tend to be more transparent.

Identifying Primaries

I really should buy more oil paint colours and started working with oils for some exercises as the acrylic paint i uded for this exercise was very transparent, especially against the grey background, and I did use various brands and qualities.

Identifying Primary Colours 1

Identifying Primary Colours 2

I started by laying down all the yellows that I had which wasn’t a lot, lemon yellow, deep yellow and medium yellow. For blues I had Phthalo blue, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, blue hue and blue lake and reds Vermilion, bright red and crimson, there were no primaries in any of the colours, each of them showed sign of other hues and to be honest I really didn’t know what a primary red, blue or even yellow looked like so to be safe I thought it was time to buy primary colours just so I knew.

Identifying Primary Colours 3

Identifying Primary Colours 4

Not having much cash left to last the month the next day following day I purchased three acrylic paints made in Thailand, a red, yellow and blue. They said primary colour on the tubs, but when I got home I realised it was probably a company slogan the paints were very runny, very transparent and very ‘crap’. Still I decided to work with them for now. The red was too bright and didn’t mix well with the Louvre crimson, the yellow was too golden but the blue was ok just too runny.

Using what I had for now I laid them all down in strips touching each other and what I noticed was working in different sequences I not only got to see how each colour looked next to another, different tones etc but it also allowed me to see hints of other primary colours within their hues.

Primary Colour Mixing

Mixing Primary Colours

I began by mixing yellow to red, then yellow to green and then blue to red, which should have been red to blue without white. These mixes can be seen above in the first 6 scales, the mixes were unstable (if that’s the right word) murky and transparent with no steady progress from one mix to another.

The next day I did what I should have done in the first place and bought some better colours.I was hoping for Louvre but there were no primary colours so I had to settle for liquitex which was the only brand with primary colours in stock. This time I mixed in a bit of white for each one.

Mixing Primary Colours 2

The results were a lot better, the colours were less transparent this time, the colours at the middle were less murky and  the tones were very even with a beautiful progression in hues from one stripe to the next.

# Understanding Colour 1 – Mixing Greys – Anachromatic Scale

Start by mixing black pigment into white to create a tonal scale that is anachromatic (i.e. that has no trace of colour). Work up a series of narrow lines from white through the faintest of greys to darker greys until the darkest tone is straight from the black tube. Ensure that eaxch is thoroughly mixed and joined but not merged with each other.

anachromatic scale

My first go at the scale was a mess I had been using water to dilute the paint so much in the last few exercises that it became a force of habit. After drying off the brush and cleaning my palette I made a second attempt which was much better but I felt that that there wasn’t a clear tonal progression and that the scale could be painted with less lines of tone with a more defined progression between each one. My third and 4th attempts did just this and were almost identical, so I felt no need to do anymore.

anachromatic scale notes

After identifying the neutral grey between the black and the white and applied the same mix to to scraps of paper which I cut from the corners and once dry I placed them at each end of the scale. What I noticed was that the grey on the scrap of paper placed at the white end of the scale looked darker than the one placed at the black end of the scale.

What I also noted from this anachromatic scale was a perfect example of the effect known as ‘Chevreul’s illusion’, the stripes seen from a suitable distance looked like channeled grooves rather than flat surfaces due to a doubling up effect caused by the left and right halves of each stripe looking lighter or darker due to the influenc at the edges of the preceding and following stripes.

# Research Point 3 – Chevreul’s Colour Theories

The brief for this research point was to find out more about Chevreul’s colour theories. And make notes on how particular artists have used Chevreul’s theories to expand the possibilities of painting.

Law of simultaneous contrasts of colours

New to  Chevreul’s theories I began scanning the internet for more information, I came across a really interesting paper written by philosopher and art historian Georges Roque in which he describes Chevreul’s ‘law of simultaneous contrast of colours’ and how particular artist’s such as Delacroix, Claude Monet, Paul Signac and even van Gogh have used his theories.

Chevreul was appointed Director of the Dyeing department of Gobelins manufacture and after 4 years of colour research he wrote a memoir to be read at the Academy of Sciences about the influence two colours can have on each other when seen simultaneously. Due to lack of reliable colour plates his main book on the subject “On the law of simultaneous contrast of colours and on its applications to…”, was delayed 11 years and wasn’t published until 1839. Published with the book was a striking list of all the areas to which is law could be applied including tapestry, clothing, horticulture, stained glass windows as well as painting.

His research into the laws of simultaneous contrast came about when the weavers at Gobelins made a complaint against the dyers in the Department of Dyeing which Chevreul directed. The complaint was that they were not producing the required depth of colours in the black dyes. Chevreul realised that the fault lay not with chemistry but it was a problem of psychophysiology; the brains perception of colour when the black was seen next to other colours.

In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colours, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the strength of their colour.– M.-E. Chevreul.

Meaning in order to perceive two colours better, the brain has a tendancy to exaggerate differences. Chevreul’s law works for lightness as well as hues which can be seen in the next exercise Mixing Grey’s – anachromatic scale.

Chevreul’s law of contrast came together through his awareness of the existence of complimentary colours. If the brain exaggerated the two juxtaposed colours this meant they would be perceived to be  more different than they actually are with the brain adding to the juxtaposed hue a little of the complimentary colour to that hue and vice versa.

Neutralizing the complimenting effect

Chevreul was asked testify in a trial between a wallpaper manufacturer and a customer who complained that the grey pattern in the wallpaper grey looked reddish whilst the manufacturer claimed it was perfectly grey. Chevreul proved both to be right by isolating the grey, then to neutralize the complimenting effect he suggested adding a small part of the colour of the background to the grey.

Chevreul concluded that when the two hues that are juxtaposed together are complimentary such as a green and a red, the two complementary colours enhance each, the red will look redder and the green will look greener. This law was critical for painters who wished to predict the intensity and harmony of colours when  juxtaposed together.

Chevreul’s influence on artists

The only painters interested in Chevreul’s theories up until the 1880s were those looking to enhance their colour. Looking for a recipe to give more intensity to their colours, these artists ‘adopted accordingly what they called erroneously “the law of complementary colours”.’Georges Roque.

One of the first of these was Eugene Delacroix who made the following mnemonic which he would use would use for his painting.

Chromatic triangle of Eugène Delacroix, 1834,

A prime example of this is Delacroix’s ‘The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. 1840 in which he used his colour triangle, structured by three pairs of complimentary colours and this can be especially seen in the flags, one of which is blue with orange motifs, another is yellow on a violet ground and the two on the ground on top of each other are of juxtaposed complimentary colours, red and green.

Eugene Delacroix , The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. 1840. Oil on canvas

The influence Chevreul’s theories had on impressionist painter Pissaro could be seen in the way he framed his paintings, applying ‘the law of complementary colours’ at a 1877 exhibition by choosing white frames so that they did not interfere with the exact tonal values of the colours in his paintings. A few years later when he wanted to enhance the colours, he opted for slightly colouring the stretches with the complementary hue of the dominating colour in his paintings.

Monet claimed he was not one to ‘theorise’ in his paintings but in an interview hewas quoted as saying “primary colours look brightest when they are brought into contrast with their complementaries”, is awareness of the laws of simultaneous contrasts of colour can be seen in ‘Poppies at Argenteuil, 1873’ in which he took the opportunity to place spots of pure read against the more dominant green.

Claude Monet, Poppies at Argenteuil, 1873

Unlike the impressionists who claimed they weren’t colour theorists the neo-impressionists from the 1880s onward realised how much of an important role colour science played in their paintings. Artist and theoretician of neo-impressionist movement, Paul Signac visited Chevreul in 1884, and in 1885 returned to visit Chevreul’s assistant at Goeblin’s, Emile David, who he is thought to have visited with George Seurat. as like other neo-impressionist painters who have acknowledged Chevreul, Seurat himself mentioned Chevreul amongst his sources.

Both Signac and Seurat As for Signac, ‘optical mixture’ where instead of being mixed on the pallete, dots of complementary colours are interposed directly on the canvas in order to applied the principle of frequently interposed small dots of complementary colours in order to increase
the luminance in their paintings, these dots of colour are meant to be fused by the eye when seen from a distance which produces a third colour, different from the
two juxtaposed hues.

Paul Signac, The Breakfast, 1886-87

Van Gogh got aquainted with ‘the theory of simultaneous contrast’ through art critic, Charles Blanc’s interpretation of Chevreul’s colour theories. He was so enthusiastic after reading Blanc that he copied out a passage of his book in a letter to his brother.

However because of van Gogh’s supposed madness, his use of colour in his paintings has been analysed by doctors rather than by art historians and he was diagnosed as having ‘xanthopsia’ or yellow vision due to his apparent overuse of yellow, but when his paintings are examined carefully the yellow never stands alone and his always along other colours usually against violet, it’s complimentary colour.

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Irises against a Yellow background

Click to access Chevreuls%20Law%20F1%20web%20good.pdf