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New thoughts about complementary colours

Hilary Page says that complements are not just one pair of colours, but two. She calls these visual complements and mixing complements, and they are not the same. Read on – this information could change the way you paint!

Many artists know that complementary colour pairs are placed opposite one another on the colour wheel and that they can be used for colour mixing (to make bright colours more neutral) and colour enhancement (to make saturated colours appear even more brilliant). Most artists, however, are misinformed about the actual colours of complementary colour pairs.

Whilst researching for my own books on colour I began to question the prevailing literature on the subject of complementary colours. It’s become clear to me that there are not just one set of complementary colour pairs, but two. The names I coined for them are mixing complements and visual complements, to describe the two functions. The colour pairs of each are not the same.

Visual complementary colour pairings complete the optical blending process of equalising the amount of colour/light reflected from a surface to produce a colourless grey (B). The colourless grey is achieved either by spinning colours in the correct proportions on a disc (A), or as coloured dots as in pointillism (B), or printed colour. For example, when lemon is visually intermingled with ultramarine blue, the optically created colour is a neutral grey (B) as opposed to subtractive colour mixing (C) when blue and yellow make green

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About The Artist

Welcome to our November issue in which our highly talented, experienced artist-tutors challenge you to re-think your approach to complementary colours in watercolour, draw a sight-size self-portrait, capture an autumnal scene in watercolour, dramatise your skies, try graphite techniques, use negative spaces to your advantage, paint a light-filled interior in impressionistic style and master perspective for successful coastal scenes. And that's just for starters! Artist-judge in BBC1's The Big Painting Challenge, Lachlan Goudie, shares his experiences of painting Scotland's shipyards ahead of his forthcoming exhibition, Nick Poullis offers tips on setting up your own gallery, Julie Collins advises on colour choices for yellow, Michele Del Campo test reports Winsor & Newton's Artists' Oil Colours, including his top tips for oils painters, and Peter Burgess takes a practical look at materials for painting and how best to store them. Enjoy another inspirational issue packed with ideas and advice for all artists!