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.”


“February Shadows”
watercolour and gouache by Stephen Quiller

Since giving a workshop with Stephen Quiller 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:

27 002

acrylic painting by Stephen Quiller

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.


acrylic painting by Stephen Quiller

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.

This letter was originally published as “Complementary colours” on March 19, 2002.

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“At a certain point the well-versed musician does not need to think of the keys, where they are located, or which scale or sequence of notes will recall a certain mood… think of the palette as an instrument with each of the colors representing a different note on the keyboard.” (Stephen Quiller)



  1. wow – Stephen Quiller? it is the 150th anniverasary of the American Watercolor Society this year and I began submitting a while back and hope to make it with them one day. Tweaking a final draft for my submission at the moment, in fact …..Stephen Quiller owns them :-D

    I am copyping this one – color notes are not always helpful – I ike to be sensitive and intuitive to reflect good eyes for it, and some color theory is not helpful….but this one is fine.
    Thank you for the reprint.

    My contribution to it was transparency and layers of tissue over color to actualize LIGHT – it was shared in college color theory class as a fine way to teach it….it was leftover lab tissue from zoology lab. Fun days! Today of course ONLY art tissue for art and lab tissue for lab. All grown up.

  2. All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.
    ― Marc Chagall (1887-1985), French Painter, Illustrator

    Rule or perhaps more of a guideline. In other words, lovers attracts and create passion for each other because they are complimenting each other. This principle can also be used in your images when you want to attract someone’s attention to an area of interest or if you want to create more passionate scene.

  3. I have admired Steven Quiller for years and have read his book cover to cover.
    Saying all that I still have so much to learn.
    Knowing the rules then applying them in a painting can be two different things. Keep teaching us.

  4. I wonder if my learning is somehow stunted by my inability to walk even for a moment in another’s path. With blinders on, I work away at my techniques and find myself doing things mostly the same way I did them 40 years ago. I must say however, that I almost always feel the presence of “guides” as I work. They are unseen. I feel and hear them speak as their presence is much like a remembered dream. They show me colors. They show me joy. I hear their words of encouragement like commands. If I failed to give them credit I would be lying to myself. I wonder if others feel them too. I have posted a new YouTube video of a child watching me work in Italy. ( I remember being that child watching an old woman painting by the Seine river in Paris, many years ago, and knowing I would be the one painting too someday. Letting those unseen guides lead me I am now that “old” woman painting. Our individual uniqueness is the only thing that they cherish. Ask and allow them to help, and a unique possibility just for you will surely manifest itself in amazing ways. Hallelujah. There is no other reality than the one we are living right now. Dream. Expect. Listen.

  5. Colour combinations have determined rules that allow us to deviate from. By doing so, artists, become the individual painter that we are meant to be. Thankfully, many have gone before us and solved even the most challenging colour theory issues. Today, we have access to so much. My advice is to simplify, then jump in with two feet. No one is looking anyway. Thanks, Sara ……I love your Dad’s writings and Stephen Quiller ‘s colour methodology, works for me.
    Ps. Sharon Rusch Shaver, Thanks for your writing about the unseen helpers. I never thought of it that way.

  6. There is so much to learn about color. It is a fascinating, challenging, rewarding and complex subject. The summary of “findings” is particularly interesting . I will save this letter for all the useful information and will read it again for the inspiration provided. Thank you for reprinting this. The learning process continues on.

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