Complementary colours

This exercise involved exploring complementary colours by creating a colour wheel and then looking at the effect the colours have on each other when placed side-by-side.

The idea that each colour has its own complementary colour that balances it meant that systems of colour began to be developed. These allowed artists to easily find the complementary colour that they required by consulting a chart.

Often these were illustrated as a colour wheel with the colours arranged around the wheel so that the complementary colour was opposite.

Michel-Eugène Chevreul created a chromatic circle which had seventy-two separate hues created from the primary colours red, yellow and blue. A simplified colour wheel, created for this exercise, is shown below.

Example of a colour wheel showing complementary colours

Example of a colour wheel showing complementary colours

The effect of placing each colour next to its complementary can be seen in the following example:

Examples of complementary colours

Examples of complementary colours

Placed beside one another the colours seem to enhance each other and appear more vibrant than they would if viewed separately.  This was what Chevreul referred to as simultaneous contrast and is to do with the way that the eye perceives the colours.

When looking at a colour the eye picks up on a ‘halo’ effect of its complementary colour around it and this influences the hue of the colour next to it.

Mixing secondary colours creates broken or tertiary colours which tend to be dark in hue and tone. In the example above the colours mixed are:

  • Red and green  – cadmium red dark/process yellow and phthalocyanine blue – created a dark violet
  • Red-orange and blue-green – cadmium red dark, process yellow/phthalocyanine blue, process yellow, titanium white – created a dark violet
  • Orange and blue – cadmium red dark, process yellow, titanium white/phthalocyanine blue, titanium white – created a dark green
  • Yellow-orange and blue-violet –  cadmium red dark, process yellow, titanium white/cadmium red deep, phthalocyanine blue, titanium white – created dark grey-violet
  • Yellow and violet – process yellow/cadmium red dark, phthalocyanine blue, titanium white – created a dark brown
  • Yellow-green and red-violet – process yellow,phthalocyanine blue/cadmium red dark, phthalocyanine blue, titanium white – created deep brown

References

Smith, R. (1987) The Artist’s Handbook. London: Dorling Kindersley

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