Painting With Complementary Colors

What are complementary colors in art and how to use them?

Complementary colors are colors located opposite of each other on the color wheel. The complementary color for green is red. The complementary color of blue is orange. The complementary color of yellow is violet.

Blue, Red, and Yellow are primary colors. Green, Orange, and Violet are secondary colors. Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors.

Complementary color pairs consist of one primary color and one secondary color. Students studying color theory often learn how to find complementary colors on the color wheel. Color theory classes sometimes fail to teach practical ways to use complementary colors in art and design. As a painter, it's important to know how to use complementary colors when making art.

Here are 3 easy ways to use complementary colors in art.

  1. Direct The Viewer's Attention
  2. Mix Natural Paint Colors
  3. Create Depth In An Oil Painting

Focal Point - Complementary Colors In Art

Use complementary colors to draw attention to a focal area in a painting. Placing two complementary colors next to one another will make each color look brighter. Complementary colors seem to visually vibrate when placed against one another. Use this to direct a viewer's attention through your artwork.

Make the focal point of your painting stronger by using a complementary color pair in the focal area.

Reserving the most saturated colors for the focal point to make the focal point stand out against a neutral background. Adding a color's complementary color, even a small amount, to the focal area can strengthen the focal area even more.

Complementary colors placed next to one another demand attention.

Complementary colors are used in advertising design to draw attention to the focal point of advertisements. The same can be done in a painting.

If two elements are competing for the viewer's attention, desaturate the color of one element while amplifying the other by placing complementary colors next to one another. Paintings with complementary colors in the focal area can be attention grabbers.

How To Use Complementary Colors In Painting

Mixing Natural Oil Paint Colors

Imagine painting green grass and the only green paint color available to you is loud, bright, and saturated. Grass painted with a bright green would look unnatural or like a cartoon.

Adding a touch of a color's complementary color will tone down the color. Adding the complementary color will decrease the color saturation resulting in a more natural color.

Paint Mixing Complementary Colors

A touch of red paint is often added to green paint to create a natural-looking green for the grass or landscape painting.

If painting a sky, you might need to add a bit of orange to your blue to reach a neutral natural-looking blue.

When mixing a skin tone oil paint, add a touch of the colors complement to neutralize or gray-out skin tones.

Using complementary color pairs helps you to mix neutral, more realistic skin tone colors.

Mixing skin tones with certain browns can result in orange-looking skin tones. Adding a small touch of blue or purple can neutralize orangey tones, creating a more natural-looking skin tone.

Making Neutral Colors

What happens when you mix two complementary colors?

When complementary colors are mixed together, they soften the brightness of one another. Mixing them together decreases the strength or intensity of each paint color.

Neutral colors will visually recede off into the distance. Use neutral colors in the background of your oil painting to create an illusion of space. Mix complementary colors together to decrease a color's chroma or color saturation.

What is the saturation of a color? Color saturation refers to the intensity of the color. A saturated color is vivid, bright, and pure. A saturated red might contain only red-colored pigments. A dull red might be comprised of a combination of two or more pigments. Combining different colors together can decrease the saturation or produce a duller color. Dull colors are often considered neutrals.

Use complements to neutralize or gray out your paint mixes to achieve natural colors.

Add a touch of orange paint into a blue paint mixture to neutralize or gray out the blue. A neutral blue can be used along the horizon in a landscape painting to make the horizon feel farther away from the viewer.

Adding a color's complement creates a muted color. Increase the feeling of depth by keeping background values similar. Soften the edges of objects in the background. Reserve hard lines and edges for the foreground or for the focal point of your painting.

Mix Oil Paint Grey

What complementary colors make grey? Mix any of the complementary color pairs like blue and orange for example to create a neutral grey-brown color. Mixing equal parts of 2 complementary colors together will produce a dark neutral. Each complementary color pair will produce a slightly different neutral grey-brown color.

These neutral grey tones can be used to paint a variety of things including a neutral background or neutral shadows within your painting.

Orange and blue paint mixed together 50-50 will make a dark neutral. Purple and yellow paint mixed together in a 50-50 ratio will make a dark neutral. Red and green paint mixed together 50-50 will make a dark neutral.

Lighten each with white to create a wide range of warm and cool grey tones.

To create a warmer grey, add a higher ratio of the warmest color from the complementary color pair. For example, a grey-brown made from purple and yellow can be made warmer by adding more yellow. It can be made cooler by adding more purple. Purple is a cool color. Yellow is a warm color.

Tone Down Competing Elements

Use complementary colors to tone down competing elements in a painting. If two subjects within the painting are competing for the viewer's attention, make one object less attention-grabbing. Tone down the less important element by mixing complementary paint colors together to reduce the intensity or "attention-grabbing" power of the paint color.

Desaturate the object's color by mixing a small amount of the color's complement into your paint mix. Toning down the chroma of the object makes it less likely to demand the viewer's attention.

Another way to tone down an object is to glaze it. Consider glazing the object with the color's complement. An oil paint glaze is a layer of transparent color.

Painting With Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors To Green

Complementary colors to green would be any color within the range of red or pink such as Cadmium Red oil colors, Alizarin Crimson, Napthol Scarlet, Brown Pink, Quinacridone Red, Perylene Red, Permanent Rose, and many more.

Complementary Colors To Blue

Complementary colors of blue are orange tones such as Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Orange Deep, India Yellow, Permanent Orange, Transparent Orange, and more.

Complementary Colors To Yellow

Complementary colors for yellow are purple and violet tones. Oil paint colors in the purple or violet range include Quinacridone Violet, Cobalt Violet, Purple, Maganese Violet, Rust Violet, among others.

Complementary Colors To Brown

Complementary colors for brown depend on the color of brown. Brown oil paint colors are often referred to as Earth colors. There are many Earth oil paint colors to choose from. Reddish browns like Burnt Sienna and Transparent Earth Orange have an orange tone, therefore blue oil paint colors such as Ultramarine Blue, Pthalo Blue, Cobalt Blue, etc. can be used as a compliment. Ochre colors have a yellow tone, therefore most any violet oil paint color would serve as a complementary color choice.

Grey Complementary Colors

The complementary color of grey depends on the colors used to make the grey. As mentioned above, grays can be mixed from any of the complementary color pairs. Grey can also be made from any black pigment mixed with white. Black oil paint colors include Mars Black, Lamp Black, and Van Dyke Brown, among others. Grey paint that has a blue undertone might serve as a subtle complement to the orange-toned paint color. Cool grey often has blue undertones. There are no true complementary colors to grey as grey is not a primary or secondary color. Grey is the result of a mix of colors.

Unsaturated, dull, or neutral colors can make an object appear to recede. Adding a touch of a color's complement can neutralize the color, reducing the saturation or chroma.

Create Depth In Painting

There are several ways to create depth in a painting. Depth helps a painting become three-dimensional.

Color Saturation Or Chroma

The illusion of depth in a painting is sometimes referred to as depth of field in art. Spatial depth in art can be depicted by perspective, color choices, values, sharpness of edges, and the overall amount of detail. All of these things can contribute to the sense of depth in art.

Use color to create depth in a painting. If you want to know how to create depth in art, consider using saturated color in the foreground and muted color in the background.

Saturated colors can make an object appear to come forward. To create depth in an oil painting, the brightest most saturated colors should be in the foreground or closest to the viewer.

Contrast between a saturated foreground and neutral background helps to create the illusion of depth in art.

Lack of color can create the illusion of distance.

The background should be grayed out or painted with neutral colors of lower saturation. Mix complementary colors together to tone down color saturation or brightness. Mixing complementary colors will often produce natural subdued color perfect for the background of a painting.

Use your knowledge of complementary colors to mix oil paint colors that create an illusion of depth.


I'm sharing everything as I deconstruct how I learned to paint.

When learning color theory, much time is spent going over the color wheel. Little was taught about how to actually use complementary colors in art.

This post covers some practical ways to use complementary colors in a painting. Use complementary colors next to one another in the focal area. Complementary colors placed close to one another will attract the viewer's attention.

Use complementary colors when mixing oil paint. Adding a touch of a color's complement decreases the chroma or saturation of the color. Use this to reduce the saturation of bright paint colors and to create natural paint colors.

Create neutral paint colors to use in the background of a painting. Neutral paint colors and grey can be used to create an illusion of space and distance.

Memorize the complementary color pairs. Knowledge of complementary color and how to use it is very useful in painting.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones