The power of the complement

As artists, whether we work with paper and paint or fabric and thread, colour is usually our driving force. It’s what catches our eye from a distance and what draws us in closer to take a second look. Often we work instinctively, just combining colours that we think are pleasing but when you are finding it difficult to choose there are more formulaic approaches to deciding on a colour scheme and a tried and trusted way is to refer to a colour wheel. One of the easiest ways to arrive at a successful colour combination is to work with complementary colours. These are the two colours that lie directly opposite each other on the wheel. So, basically we’re talking red/green, blue/orange and yellow/violet.

Nature often has has a way with complementary colours as this deep red nasturtium with its bright green leaves demonstrates.

I’ve recently been inspired to capture the same combination in this watercolour painting of a chard leaf. Those blue greens wouldn’t have been half as interesting without that injection of contrasting red. This detail of the painting shows contrast in two forms – tonal value and colour. The variation in value was created by diluting the paint with lots of water in some areas whilst using it full strength elsewhere. The red was rose madder straight from the tube.

Now when anyone mentions the colour wheel what immediately springs to mind is all the colours of the rainbow in their full and saturated intensity just like the nasturtium. The image of the fabric print above shows that complementary colours can also be paler versions of the two colours. Here red and green are featured as pink and eau de nil. Still red and green but in their gentler, pastel guise. Colours with added white to make them pale are known as tints – colours with added black are called shades.

The pairing of blue and orange can be gorgeous in their pure, intense state but just as beautiful would be rust and navy or peach and teal. Think of a pale sandy beach against the turquoise blue of the sea for yet another variant of blue and orange and you’ll begin to understand how subtle and nuanced complementary colour schemes can be!

Maybe you’d like to take a look back through your sketchbooks or at the quilts you’ve made to see what use of complementary colours you’ve worked with before? It’s always revealing to analyse what colours you favour and why. Formulas are all very well but what works for you!