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The Difference Between Mixing and Visual Complements

With the right complementary color pairs, the color in your paintings will be more exquisite and dazzling than ever before

color diagram

The colors shown in this chart are mixing complements, used to make saturated colors less intense as increasing amounts of one are added to the other. The three typical pairs of mixing complementary colors consist of three primary and three so-called secondary colors. A touch of any purple, for instance, will render most yellows quite unsaturated. Where the precise color shown in the chart is not available in the Daniel Smith range, Winsor and Newton paints have been listed. These can also be purchased at Daniel Smith.

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A complement is "that which completes."
Painters' complements "complete" two types of color mixing: subtractive and optical. Mixing complements relates to the subtractive synthesis which is bound by the laws of absorption and reflection; visual complements relate to the optical synthesis bound by the limits of color perception.

Mixing complements are used for color mixing.
They are pairs of colors that neutralize one another as an increasing amount of one is added to the other. The actual color pairs are determined because they complete the subtractive color mixing process (the amount of reflected light from a painted surface is subtracted with each admixture). Mixing complements make black or dark gray when the correct two colors are mixed together in the right proportions.

Visual complements are used for color enhancement.
They are pairs of colors in which each appears more vibrant when they are painted adjacent to each other. The colors of visual complements nearly correspond to the complementary colored pairs of colored lights of the additive synthesis which, when shone together on a surface, yield white light. The actual color pairs of visual complements are determined because they complete the optical synthesis (reflected light from a painted surface is equalized by the eyes when viewed) and make a multi-colored gray.

The gray effect occurs when the right pairs are painted in the correct proportions by combining colored dots, as in Pointillism. It also occurs when the correct pairs, in correct proportion, are painted on a disc and spun.

Fortunately, we don't have to go through this arduous process to determine the right colors! Printed color pairs were quantifiably established by Ellen Marx in her incisive book Optical Contrast and Simultaneity (1983, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc.). I have shown the corresponding pairs of artists' colors in the chart created for this article. You will need to use these precise colors for optimal color enhancement.

The mistake in not distinguishing between the mixing and visual color pairs dates from the start of the nineteenth century. Color-contrast was already an established principle, and the term "complement" was first used in relation to so-called color harmony and afterimages.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the prolific German author, stated in his "Theory of Colours" (1810) that for "completeness" the eye produces a "complemental hue upon each color." He designed a triangle of three "complemental" pairs and used the same color arrangement as Moses Harris, who had created the first artists' color wheel in 1776 as an aid to color mixing. Harris mixed three "secondary" colorsgreen/violet/orange - from the primary colors red/yellow/blue and placed them opposite one another, with black in the center. Goethe also asserted that a mixture of all colors made gray. Referring to these charts, many artists then used the opposite colors both for color-contrast harmony and also to make gray, thus erroneously combining the functions of mixing and visual complements.

Michel-Eugene Chevreul, a French chemist and color theorist who, unlike Goethe, understood the difference between subtractive and optical/additive color, wrote "The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their Application to the Arts" (1839). In this book, he offered a wheel showing complementary pairs, and specified that it was for color modification "upon the eye," and not for paint mixing. However, since he used the same color pairs as Goethe, he continued the error. For instance, he used red/green instead of red/turquoise, blue/orange instead of cyan/orange,
and yellow/violet instead of yellow/blue. His investigations did, however, influence the work of the French Impressionist painters, as well as fashion, garden and interior designers
of the period.

Ogden Rood in Modern Chromatics (1879) named the correct visual complementary contrast colors-which he called "companions" that when juxtaposed glowed "with more than
their natural brilliancy." But like his predecessors, he failed to articulate the difference between visual and mixing complements! And so the misinformation has continued-until today!

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The named paints I've used in this chart are visual complements which, when painted side by side, will make the colors appear especially vibrant. The proportions show the approximate amount of each color it would take to make the requisite colorless gray if spun on a disc or painted as
individual dots. Only color pairs that are visual complements will make light gray if blended in this way, indicating that when painted contiguously each will appear more vivid to the viewer.

Again, Winsor & Newton paints have been listed if the precise color is not available in Daniel Smith paints. In both charts, the color reproduction may not be quite exact due to the limitations of four-color printing technology.

Here is a demonstration from start to finish in which visual complements are used for color enhancement.
I juxtaposed the yellow lemons with their visual complement, blue, to make the lemons appear especially brilliant.
This "Lemons on Blue" Study is easy for you to duplicate at home or in your studio. All you need are a dozen fresh lemons, a couple of blue cloths, possibly a lemon squeezer and a knife, and hey presto! You can paint along!
I used a quarter sheet (11" x 15") of Arches 140 lb cold pressed paper and the following Daniel Smith paints. Their pigment numbers are shown in parentheses:

• Hansa Yellow Light (PY3)
• Ultramarine Blue GS (PB29)
• Hansa Yellow (PY97)
• Cobalt Blue (PB28)
• French Ultramarine RS (PB29)
• Quinacridone Rose (PB19r)

After carefully arranging my lemons and cloths by a north-facing window, I made a credit card-sized value sketch by squinting to help me see the value. I then did a line drawing to scale on sketch paper which I subsequently transferred to my watercolor paper using a light table. I don't like to photograph a subject and trace a drawing from it since I find this boring and feel it destroys creativity.

I next squeezed out blobs of paints in three separate palettes for my blues, yellows and grays. I mixed the grays from Cobalt Blue, Quinacridone Rose and Hansa Yellow Light. I put about a teaspoonful of water in each palette. To complete my preparations, I placed an absorbent cotton towel that was a little larger than my watercolor paper on a flat surface near by. You'll see why soon!

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Lemons on Blue:
A Study Utilizing Visual Complements

Stage 1:

I thoroughly wet my watercolor paper on the front and back surfaces and then placed it on a slick plexiglas board. I rewet the edges. I had to work rapidly to complete this stage before the shine left the paper surface.

I dropped in the shadows and blue stripes on the top left-hand cloth; then I laid in the blue underpainting for the glass lemon squeezer on the solid blue cloth. Making sure the paper still had a shine, I laid in the lemons' form shadows and cast shadows using a purplish-gray mixed from Cobalt Blue, Quinacridone Rose and a touch of Hansa Yellow Light.
Once finished with that, I quickly transferred the wet paper to the flat towel to avoid backruns around the edges.
If the shine had left the surface before I completed the shadows, I would have had to thoroughly dry the paper to set the paint and then rewet it to prevent watermarks from forming. I could also use this procedure to restate values. It is important to have the values correct at the preliminary stage so the second stage is a cinch.

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Stage 2:
On completely dry paper, using a bamboo pen, I drew several dots of masking fluid on the blue paint on the lemon squeezer to preserve the white highlights. Then I placed my paper on a cotton cloth on my plexiglas board so I would avoid backrun watermarks around the edge.

Before painting the lemon yellow on each lemon, I placed a blob of clear water for the highlight. I rewet the solid blue cloth in sections and dropped on the first wash of blue paint. Occasionally, I lifted out paint with a damp sable brush. I left the lemon by the knife unpainted in the illustration to show the sequence.

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Stage 3:
Studying my set-up carefully, I worked in small areas as shown. If I wanted a soft edge, I made sure the paint was surrounded by clear water it could merge into. If I wanted a hard edge, I painted on dry paper. Sometimes I turned my painting upside down to gauge the underlying shapes. Finally, I added the dark accents and details.

I hope you've enjoyed this step-by-step study for visual complements. There are many more such demonstrations in my books Watercolor Right from the Start and Color Right from the Start, and as here, each one illustrates a different aspect of watercolor or color theory. Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints identifies the very best paints now available to you for your own painting endeavors!

About the Author
Hilary Page is the author of "Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paint." She has written numerous magazine articles including for American Artists' Watercolor issues, and produced six art instruction videos. Hilary is an experienced workshop instructor teaching in the USA, Europe, the Bahamas, Mexico and China in September 2003. Originally from England, she now lives in Houston, Texas.

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