Part 2 – Exercise 4: Complementary colours

Here is my R-Y-B colour wheel:

My Chevreul's colour wheel (click on image to enlarge)

My Chevreul’s colour wheel (click on image to enlarge)

I again used the following: cadmium red; primary yellow; primary cyan, from which I mixed the other colours. I can’t quite get my head round using magenta as a primary red. I mixed colours as follows:

∞ primary yellow mixed with cadmium red to achieve orange

∞ primary yellow and orange to achieve yellow/orange

∞ cadmium red and orange to achieve red/orange


∞ primary yellow mixed with primary cyan to achieve green

∞ primary yellow and green to achieve yellow/green

∞ primary cyan and green to achieve blue/green


∞ cadmium red mixed with primary cyan to achieve violet (*struggled with this a bit!)

∞ cadmium red and violet to achieve red/violet

∞ primary cyan and violet to achieve blue violet

* I came across this note on the Winsor & Newrton website: ‘It is often a surprise to artists that Cadmium Red is not recommended as primary red in a three colour selection. Permanent Rose produces much cleaner and brighter violets and oranges, because it is closer to magenta.’  This is probably why my violet is quite dark.

[Source http://www.winsornewton.com/resource-centre/hints-tips-and-techniques/colour-mixing/practical-applications-of-colour-theory/ ]

The wheel is based on Chevreul’s classification of colours – chromatic diagram of 1855 – the R-Y-B model. I have noticed that most modern versions of the colour wheel move clockwise through the sequence R-Y-B. However, Chevreul’s original ‘circle’ moved anti-clockwise from R-Y-B?:

Chevreul's colour wheel

Chevreul’s colour wheel


[Source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Eugène_Chevreul ]

The next task was to match up the complementary/opposite colours from the colour wheel and show them adjoining on a grey background in a tonally consistent manner (with small amounts of white applied in the mix where necessary):

Complementary colours - tertiary colours (click on image to enlarge)

Complementary colours – tertiary colours (click on image to enlarge)

I laid down the complementary colours in strips (top row) on a grey ground as follows, using the same 50:50 colour mixes as for the colour wheel:

Red/Green
Red/Orange & Blue/Green
Orange/Blue
Yellow/Orange & Blue/Violet
Yellow/Violet
Yellow/Green & Red/Violet

The final task was to mix each pair of complementary colours and describe the resulting broken or tertiary colour (bottom row above).

The resulting mixes from these pairs of complementaries were as follows:

reddish brown’
‘greyish brown’
‘bluish green’
‘dark green’
‘yellowish brown’
‘brown’

So, how do complementary colours affect each other?

Looking along the top row of complementary colours my immediate response is that they appear to ‘highlight’ each other, making each one stand out against the other.

However, as I notice in the bottom row, when the complementaries are mixed they seem to cancel each other out and result in a much less vibrant/muted colour. This suggests to me that it should be possible to ‘tone down’/darken a bright/light colour a wee bit by adding just a touch of that colour’s complementary colour to the mix, rather than say using a grey/or touch of black. 

I wonder, is the opposite also true – that a wee bit of an opposite/complementary colour could be used to ‘tone up’/lighten a colour without using white? I think it would all depend on a very small amount of mix being used and possibly even the colours involved.

I tried a couple of mixes, firstly with primary yellow and violet, adding a wee bit of violet to primary yellow resulting in a slightly darker “brownish’ yellow; and then adding a wee bit of primary yellow to a violet mix resulting in a slightly lighter “yellowish” violet.

Complementary colour mixes (click on image to enlarge)

Complementary colour mixes (click on image to enlarge)

When I tried the same with cadmium orange and primary cyan, however, the results appear to me to be darker – a “bluish/brown” and a “bluish/green”.

 Exercise 4- Complementary colours ← click the link to download a .pdf version of this page