Complementary colours


Dear Artist,

Rain drums on the studio roof. We wait for spring and I’m fooling with the colours of summer. A slip, perhaps, to a borderline zone: the goofy idea that colours are people. It started with a quote from Marc Chagall: “All colours are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.”

Since the workshop with Stephen Quiller last fall I’ve been more consciously looking at complementaries. Experiments with simple designs that follow calculated schemes. What a playing field! Blue and orange, yellow and purple, red and green. For the first time in my life I’ve taken egg cartons and carefully pre-mixed opposites that test out to equal intensity. Some are unabashed high-key pastels and others are sucked down with neutralizing opposites toward magic grays and mysterious darks. When you dip into the carton you know what you’re getting. Some findings:

Colour simplicity has power and cleanliness.
Equal intensity laybys make fun for the eyes.
Some colour families are more moody than others.
Wooden colours are enlivened by their opposites.
Adjacent colours accept one another’s temperature.
Complementaries are the key to sophisticated grays.
Reflected light is an underused wonder of painting.
Rampant experimentation is the father of invention.
Local colour ought to be friendly to those next door.
Colour mixing is more valuable than colour application.
If all else fails, pick one primary and leave her out.
What’s out there is not as important as what’s in here.
Bright complementaries spice otherwise dull monochromes.
Determining “mother colour” is the mother of colour theory.
Unruly crowds can be tamed by glazing their complementaries.
Sticking to a planned colour scheme is inspiration in itself.
A colour wheel on the wall is worth more than a sack of tubes.

Best regards,


PS: “There are colours which cause each other to shine brilliantly, which form a couple which complete each other like man and woman.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Esoterica: The egg carton is the most universally available tray. Perhaps the chickens, laying by the dozen, are thinking of us. The stronger plastic cartons are best. The lids fit remarkably well. A strip of spongy foam glued to the inside of the lid and filled with water keeps acrylics and gouache wet for weeks. Like a lot of good things in life, they’re free.

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.


Complementary questions
(RG note) A few artists wrote to ask if I might clarify some of the above.

Paul C. Moors of Tucson, AZ asked, “Could you please elaborate on ‘Complementaries are the key to sophisticated grays.’ ”

(RG note) We all know that you can mix pretty good grays by using black and white. Sophisticated grays are grays with colour nuances in them. By carefully mixing opposites on the colour wheel it’s possible to achieve more valuable grays. Even when white (or black) is added to these combinations the results “sing” and interact better with their like-minded neighbours.

Ellie Snyder of Kauai asked what “mother colour” was.

(RG note) Merlin Enabnit coined the term about 1930. His idea has been around for centuries; only the name was original. Paintings have more harmony when some amount of one colour is mixed in with all colours in the work. For example, put a bit of red oxide in all the colours to achieve unity and overall warmness.

Dana Andersen asked, “…pre-mixed opposites that test out to equal intensity.” HOW DO YOU DO THAT?

(RG note) Cut swatches of paper say 2 inches square. Cover one with a nice bright green. Pick the red (complementary) that is opposite on the colour wheel and paint it on another swatch. Lay the swatches side by side and look at them with half closed eyes until they are seen more or less grayed down. One will appear darker than the other. Now go back to your mixing and progressively add white to the darker one until it appears to have the same amount of “intensity” as the other. This is the practical painter’s way of achieving equal intensity. When the colours are “right on” they interact with one another, boggle the eye and grab attention. Merlin Enabnit called this phenomenon “razzle-dazzle.” More sophisticated ways of achieving equal intensity can be found by following the research of the colour expert Josef Albers. See letter below.


No easy task
by Dick Nelson, Maui, HI, USA

My work with Josef Albers provided such a deep respect for the complexities of color and its interaction that I hesitate to give color advice through words. So many variables. I applaud your efforts to explain what has to be the most difficult visual task facing a colorist. Our ability to correctly identify colors of equal value (light/dark) requires a training that few art students or even professional artists have experienced. Consistently, only about 40% of Albers’ graduate students could correctly select color swatches of equal value. This percentage increased with experience, but experience gained through critique, where both student and mentor could view the colors under similar light conditions.

(RG note) Richard Nelson is a modern day colour guru who lives on the side of a volcano on Maui. A twice-weekly letter about him and some of the questions he raises are at


Matisse, colourist
by J K Rowse, UK

Matisse had an instinctive understanding of colour. At the end of his lifetime he was able to put it into words: “Put a colour upon a canvas -– it not only colours with that colour the part of the canvas to which the colour has been applied, but it also colours the surrounding space with the complementary.”


Ice-cube trays
by Lynda Laker

I bought myself a package of cheap plastic ice-cube trays from the dollar store for mixing colors. I can wash them out and reuse them indefinitely. I keep one tray for each of the primary colors and experiment by adding different mixes to each section.


Egg boxes
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

The egg boxes are using in the Russia too. Of course, the quality of those is sometimes such as just paper. Then, if painter want to use it for very liquid paint he can put onto compartments of egg box one band of aluminum foil. This aluminum foil is convenient material to have paint box in any size paper box, and even in any place with holes. One band of foil is more light than the equal surface of palettes. Very busy artists (and artisteses too) may use this foil to wash not food dishes and plates — just remove the foil after eating. But the very-very-very busy artists may use not any foil and keep unwashed food dishes and plates in the refrigerator without risk of cockroaches attack at least to end of creative inspiration.


Spring fever
by Shirley Flinn, Alberta, Canada

Spring, ahhhh, I can hardly wait to be out in my garden. The outside temp is presently -25C, I knew it was cold as soon as I went to the kitchen to let the dogs out. I didn’t need to open the door, as soon as I see that the little nail holes, on the inside door moldings, have a quarter of a inch of ice on them, I know it’s cold out side. I’m taking a watercolour course not far from here, given by Lian Zhen, and we are only using three colours, it is truly amazing what is being produced in this class, the intensity of colour and the movement of paint. Like you said the pastels that are produced. Mr. Zhen must be wondering what kind hinterland is this as he just finished a class in Hawaii, before arriving in Alberta, Canada. Today we paint snow, like the Inuit people who have 23 words for snow, I’m sure we will find it’s many shades and colours within the three primary colours we are using in this workshop.


Contest entries

The following are a few more of the 300 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced three weeks ago. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany with Robert Genn” contest.


“Still life with green apples”
acrylic painting by
Sherry Purvis, Kennesaw, GA, USA


watercolour painting
by Leanne Cadden, B.C., Canada











painting by Dave Fraser,
Alberta, Canada


“Fall landscape, Port Rowan”
painting by Linda Kemp,
Jordan, Ontario, Canada











painting by Kim Rody,
Stuart, Florida, USA










You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 97 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Epic Dewfall from Ottawa, Ontario who penned the following:

“The most beautiful colours of a painting, a universe or a pun.
Where sometimes we find are two, there was only room for one.”

And Stephen Quiller of Creede, Colorado who wrote, “I thought that Chagall was the one that said ‘Colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.’ That’s the way it is in my book, anyway.” (RG note) You’re probably right, Stephen. Doesn’t sound like something Auden would say. People in the research department of the “Resource of Art Quotations” where I picked it up, have been alerted and are working to correct the problem.


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