These Paintings Don’t Have to Be Cheesy

Because learning about color complements on the color wheel is often one of the first lessons we are taught in art class, complementary color paintings–those contrasting blue and orange, yellow and violet, and red and green–are often thought of as for beginners.

A painting by Leonard Rosoman that shows how subtle complements can be.
A painting by Leonard Rosoman that shows
how subtle complements can be.

It doesn’t help that these color schemes are sometimes illustrated in a really heavy-handed way. That is especially off-putting to me because I know that oil paintings showing colors mixed in this way can be quite subtle, and not cheesy or elementary in appearance at all. It’s really just all in the way the complementary art colors are used by the artist.

For example, sets of complements can be used together but their visual power can be balanced or mitigated by white or black. Another way to make complementary color schemes successful is by using different proportions of each color. Equal amounts of color can cause eyestrain, but a limited use of blue in a largely yellow oil painting, for example, creates an enjoyable viewing experience.

One can also use complements in a painting that is mostly made up of neutral colors, so that the pops of color don’t dominate, but enhance the whole painting and give it a center of interest.

Green Silk on Chair by Desmond Haughton, oil on canvas.
Green Silk on Chair by Desmond Haughton,
oil on canvas.

And there’s always the possibility of using split complementaries, which means pulling in colors that are on either side of a complementary color on the color wheel like red-violet (I love this one!) or blue-violet.

Basic color theory is such a fascinating subject because it can be both elementary and complex in fascinating ways. We just published a batch of our annual CD collections from our magazines, and in any of them —The Artist’s Magazine 2015 CD, Watercolor Artist 2015 CD, Pastel Journal 2015 CD, or Drawing 2015 CD–you will find inspiring color theory based on medium, as well as inspirational artworks and articles to keep you excited and productive in the studio! Informative, straightforward, and with tons of images, these collections speak to the vast permutations of color that are available to painters. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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