Exercise: Complimentary Colours


Complimentary Colours

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

Colour wheel exploring complimentary colours Attempt 1 Acrylic

Colour wheel exploring complimentary colours
Attempt 1


Colour wheel exploring complimentary colours Attempt 2 Acrylic

Colour wheel exploring complimentary colours
Attempt 2

Next, consider the twelve colours from Chevreul’s colour circle and lay each colour next to its opposite or complimentary on a grey ground.  Try to match the darker tone to the lighter by adding white.


Make mixtures of each pair of complimentary colours. Make a note of the colours mixed and describe the resulting colour. this is another way of creating broken or tertiary colours.


Look closely at the effect that complimentary colours have on each other and try to explain this in your notes.

Comparing and mixing complimentary colours on a neutral grey ground. Acrylic.

Comparing and mixing complimentary colours on a neutral grey ground.

NB Observations are noted next to examples.


Exercise: Broken or Tertiary Colours


Broken or Tertiary Colours

Make a scale between an orange red and a green blue. Try to maintain consistent tonal values across the scale by adding a little white, as in previous exercise.

Broken or Tertiary Colours Orange Red to Green Blue Acrylic paint on neutral grey ground.

Broken or Tertiary Colours
Orange Red to Green Blue
Acrylic paint on neutral grey ground.

I began this exercise with enthusiasm but also a low supply of ultramarine blue. As I progressed along the scale, which appeared to be going well (still in the reds) I ran out of ultramarine completely.  Never fear I thought, I have a student quality Cobalt Blue, which, as previously covered was not Cobalt Blue PB28 but a mix of Ultramarine PB29 and Titanium White PW6, as I had to add a little white to maintain tone it seemed logical that this would be a good substitute for the Ultramarine.  As I carried on, I was perturbed to find that instead of grey, my mixes were appearing more green.  As I stared at the mixes both on the palette and on the grey ground I glanced at the tube of blue paint I had been using – Coeruleum Blue, (PB15,3/PW5/PY184) with a yellow pigment as Bismuth Vanadate Yellow that explains why I was getting more green than blue. An irritating mistake but I am pleased I know where I went wrong and can redo the process when I have new supplies.

More to come…


A little break away and then returned to this exercise using the correct blue this time.

Broken or Tertiary Colours Orange Red to Green Blue and Orange to Violet Acrylic paint on neutral grey ground  2nd attempt

Broken or Tertiary Colours
Orange Red to Green Blue
Orange to Violet
Acrylic paint on neutral grey ground
2nd attempt

This entire exercise was a revelation demonstrating the range of colours that may be mixed from the primaries to make secondary, and subsequently, creating tertiary colours.
















Primary and Secondary Colour Mixing


Primary and Secondary Colour Mixing

For this exercise I decided to use acrylic paints to enable a quicker drying time.  I have a mixture of student and artist quality paint which may or may not affect the results or strength of colour.

Tasks involved:

  • Use the previously determined neutral grey as the ground colour for the mixes
  • Notice the hue (how one colour is distinguished from another), the chroma (intensity of colour) and the tone of these pigments.
  • Identify the primary colours within my range of pigments by selecting the most intense yellow, blue and red.
  • Make a scale of each: yellow to red, yellow to blue and red to blue.
  • Mix differing hues to create a true violet.

Below are two photographs of the same board of colour mixes, one taken inside and the other taken outside, both being natural daylight, however, each describes the colours differently. I thought this was interesting to see how the type of light affects how we view (or the camera views) the exact same sample of colour.

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing Photograph taken inside with natural light Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing
Photograph taken inside with natural light
Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing Photograph taken outside with natural light Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing
Photograph taken outside with natural light
Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground








Notes have been made next to the mixes and should be viewable within the photographs.

Whilst sorting through my paints I found a manufacturer’s technical sheet describing their paint colours and the pigments used to create them.  There is an industry standard code for all pigments consisting of, usually, two letters and a number, eg PR108 for Cadmium Red. As the rest of the leaflet was helpfully in French, a little beyond my basic conversational standard, I feel I can assume that P is for pigment and R is for red and the number is the specific shade.  This really helped me understand, specifically, the difference between many student and artist quality paints and how a shade is mixed.  I am sure that this is a little simplistic and ratios etc are key, however, for my immediate purposes I found it very useful.

Regarding the student and artist quality differences, I discovered for example that an artist quality paint of Cerulean (or Coeruleum) Blue is made up of PB28 Cobalt Blue and PG50 Cobalt Green, yet the student quality (of the brand I have) consisted of PB15.3 Pthalo Blue, PW5 Barium Sulphate a white and PY184 Bismuth Vanadate Yellow!  As the cobalts are reassuringly expensive, I would guess that this is a cost-effective way of creating the colour.

I had received my tutor’s critique of my Assignment 1 work and for the final painting, he had suggested that my use of black contributed to the deadening of colour as a result.  Whilst I agreed that the colour was indeed flat and didn’t describe the green glass of the bottle successfully, I was pretty sure I hadn’t used black.  However, whilst doing this exercise I thought I may have inadvertently used black in a brand mixed paint.  Convinced this was the case, I researched the most obvious culprit, Prussian Green. Sadly, I discovered that this is composed of Pthalo Blue PB15 and Isoindolinone Yellow PY110, it appears it was just my dodgy colour mixing after all!

I am sure that all this must leave some people cold, however, I find it extremely interesting, there is, as well as manufacturers’ specific “colour cocktail” sites, a website called The Colour of Art Pigment Database


which is most helpful.


The next task in this exercise was to:

  • Make scales of colours using the same sequence but maintain consistent tonal value by adding a little white. (The blues and greens should have the same tonal value as yellow).
Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing Maintaining a consistent tone Acrylic on neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing
Maintaining a consistent tone
Acrylic on neutral grey ground

I enjoyed doing this, however, it was quite draining! It took most of the day to create the previous mixing samples and I’m glad I left this to the next day to produce.  I found I had to be very methodical, mixing with a palette knife and ensuring that my brush was always clean of the previous mix. (It was a little wasteful as adding white increased the volume of paint in the palette and I found I had to push away quantities to avoid making more and more mixture (note to self if/when I repeat this or similar exercises), I did however, try to use the left over paint for coloured grounds for future work.) In order to achieve a consistent tone, I held each mix against the yellow (for yellow to red and yellow to blue) and squinted my eyes, where the two colours appeared to merge tonally, I knew that the tone was similar. Occasionally, I can see I misjudged this, again by squinting at the scale in the photograph ie

  • Yellow to red – 7th swatch from the right is too dark and the last swatch is a little too light.
  • Yellow to blue – this seemed to cause the most trouble, (from the left) swatches 12 & 14 are too dark, 19 & 23 are too light.
  • Red to blue – fairly consistent (ish) until the last few blues which have too much white.

I am confident I understood and got the principle here yet this does make my eyes very tired and it’s not an exercise that can be rushed.


Exercise: Mixing Greys – Anachromatic Scale


Mixing Greys

Work on creating sequences until you can see a clear tonal progression.

Mixing Greys - Anachromatic Scale (Acrylic) A3 sketchbook

Mixing Greys – Anachromatic Scale
(Acrylic) A3 sketchbook

This is something that took a little practice and care and I thought I’d achieved the brief, however, when speaking to my portrait tutor about this exercise, he said he’d managed 30+ grey tones when he did this at college! I may revisit this – although as I’m updating my learning log retrospectively, the next colour mixing exercises were more comprehensive.

Further notes were made in the sketchbook itself and should be viewable in the photograph.


Research Point: Colour Theories of Chevreul and How Artists Have Applied Them

13 & 14/04/15

Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786 – 1889)

Find out more about the colour theories of Chevreul and make notes on how particular artists have used Chevreul’s theories to expand the possibilities of painting.

French Chemist of extensive scientific achievements, of which I’ll concentrate on his theories of colour. As Director of the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris – a dye works, he received complaints regarding the colour matching of the dyes produced for tapestries.  Particularly of blacks which appeared different when next to blues for example.  Chevreul discovered that perceived colour, when next to others, changed according to the adjacent colour, he called this the Concept of Simultaneous Contrast.

After much investigating and experimenting and giving extensive lectures in the subject, he wrote the book The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours (published in English in 1854).

Chevreul’s findings influenced many things not least European art namely, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Orphism or Orphic Cubism.

Whilst researching M. Chevreul’s theories, I came across a paper written by Georges Roque 2010, called Chevreul’s Colour Theory and its Consequences for Artists – Published by the Colour Group (Great Britain) http://www.colour.org.uk 2011.

I have included a link to this paper, as it is, although lengthy, concise and above all interesting and readable.   http://www.colour.org.uk/Chevreuls%20Law%20F1%20web%20good.pdf

Some points I found particularly fascinating:

  • The eye deceives the brain (or is it the other way around) when viewing tones adjacent to each other.
    (See anecdote regarding a court case between a wallpaper manufacturer and wealthy client – one disagreeing with the other as to the reproduction of a grey in the design, one saying it is absolutely the correct grey, the other saying it had a reddish tint. Chevreul brought as expert witness deduced both were correct, in isolation, the grey was accurate, yet against the background colour (green), it did indeed have a reddish tint).
  • I tried the experiment mentioned regarding a red dot on white paper, in that when viewed for a period of time, a pale green (blueish green in my case) glow appeared around the red dot, and when one looks away from the red dot, a greenish dot is seen against the white of the paper. Being a tad pedantic, I also tried this with a green dot and lo and behold a pale pink (we can say pale red if you like) glow appeared around the green! Blue – Gave pale orange! Okay, I believe him that this is the origin of complimentary colours. It appears to be a natural phenomena that occurs due to how our eyes work!
  • Colour mixing can be with coloured light or coloured pigment.
    Colour mixing with light is additive and more pure, and when equal intensities of colour are mixed it produces white.
    Colour mixing with pigment is subtractive and less pure, and when equal intensities of colour are mixed it produces black.

How Particular Artists have Used Chevreul’s Theories to Expand the Possibilities of Painting

Again. Georges Roque’s paper is very useful and informative, it is the fundamental reason for his writing it.  Without being too lazy, I have used the artists mentioned and researched them in this regard.

Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863)

Almost 10 years ago I had the opportunity to spend the entire day, unaccompanied by a bored spouse, in the Louvre, Paris. My most memorable part of this mammoth painting viewing extravaganza, was the wonderful paintings of Delacroix.  They were strong in colour, brushwork, story and passion and often of shocking subjects, yet they were still easy to view. How did he do this? It seems from Georges Roque’s research, that Delacroix was very interested in Chevreul’s theories and lectures. He made a triangular diagram in a sketchbook illustrating the relationships of complimentary colours which he used to bring harmony to his paintings.  He was also adept at bringing mood and meaning to his images by his use of colour.  One of my favourite paintings from that day was The Death of Sardanapalus, this seems to have been painted prior to Chevreul’s lectures on colour harmony, however, shows his natural affinity with colour and maybe why he became so interested in Chevreul in later years.  Learning the reason why something works so well helps recreate desired results.

Camille Pissarro (1830 -1903)

The only artist spanning both Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist movements. Chevreul’s theories are often related to these styles of painting as they shared a desire to recreate the colour and luminosity of light in nature.  Pissarro, as did other Impressionists, used complimentary colours to give life and light to his paintings, using local colour in shadows to bring a cohesive and harmonious appearance. Keen to expand knowledge and push theories, Pissarro became close to Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and explored the practice of pointillism. Examples of the use of complimentary colours to bring vibrancy and harmony being Old Chelsea Bridge London 1871 (Smith College Museum of Arts), *Toit Rouges, Coin d’un Village, Hiver, Cote de Sainte-Denis, Pontoise 1877 (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), the Garden of Pontoise 1877 and Children on a Farm 1887.

*Translation: Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter, Cote de Sainte-Denis, Pontoise.

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891)

Credited with the creation of Chromoluminanism or Divisionism: Maximum luminosity, separation of colours, dots or marks that interact visually;
Pointillism: Dots of paint not necessarily with separation of colours.

Interestingly, Seurat also studied Delacroix’s use of colour. He believed that harmony and emotion can be evoked with colour – refer again to Delacroix. Seurat took the science available to him vie Chevreul, Charles Blanc (a French art critic, who took Chevreul’s theories and applied then specifically to art) and Ogden Rood (again looking at colour theory and its application in art, was an American physicist). Referring back to Georges Roque’s paper, he notes that art historian Robert L Herbert discounts the claim of optical mixing and it has had some negative criticism in more recent times, however, even if the eye doesn’t exactly mix the colours, Divisionism and Pointillism does offer a high degree of luminosity in paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

As the paper of Chevreul by Georges Roque specifically comments on Van Gogh’s colour techniques (using quotes from his letters to brother Theo re Bedroom in Arles 1888), I will not repeat his conclusions, but refer to how this brilliant man with a delicate mind used his colours to again describe mood and emotion. He seemed to feel everything deeply and his adoption of some of the techniques used by Seurat and Paul Signac with dots of colour, helped him put these emotions into his paintings.  It seems to me this was a natural progression for Van Gogh as he was a master of mark making in his bamboo pen and ink drawings that he should find a way to combine this with complimentary colour juxtaposition. He seemed particularly taken with yellow/orange with blue. See:

The Cafe Terrace 1888
Van Gogh’s Chair 1888
The Starry Night 1889
The Sower 1888
and on and on…

Paul Klee (1879 – 1940)

An artist I am not overly familiar with and worth my revisiting at a later date. As noted in my course notes he was an artist and a teacher within the Bauhaus movement. I haven’t yet found much information relating to his colour theories, however, I noted a similar vein of thought to that of Georges Seurat. Both refer to the emotion, expression, rhythm in colour and structure of drawing and painting in a similar way that a musician uses counterpoint in composing harmony in music.

I have finally found a paper written by Roy Osbourne called Colour School (Thoughts on the Teaching of Colour Theory)


This refers to Paul Klee, Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) and Joseph Albers (1888 – 1976).

In this link, Paul Klee refers to transparent colour mixing with watercolour – as crossed my mind when reading about colour mixing with light – does this refer to transparent colour? Although when mixed together, blue, red and yellow watercolour does mix to white but can some of the theory be applied – it certainly doesn’t mix to black???  No it refers to light and watercolour is pigment however transparent, I can see how confusion was caused – my head is spinning. Am now looking forward to the colour mixing exercises to answer and more than likely pose more questions.

Research via Wikipedia and Hints, Tips & Techniques, Colour Mixing Published by Winsor & Newton ColArt Fine Art & Graphics Ltd 1997. (Specifically The Terminology of Colour Theory)