Australian Fine Artist

Complementary Colour

David Chen’s 9 Monthly Art Workshops

These notes are from my most recent all day workshop with David Chen. Each full day covers over five hours of theory and practical work, and are planned by David to help us to understand an important aspect of planning, composing and creating our paintings so that they not only look beautiful but also look “right” as far as tonal contrast, perspective, composition, colour mixing and application of our paint.

Our session today was based around complementary colours. For this exercise I chose a pic of purple irises. The idea was good I thought but the amount of green in the photo soon became a problem that I could not overcome in a short morning session. The idea behind the use of limited colours is to make one of them dominant taking up to 80% and the other prominent. This means that one colour takes up a lot of the painting area and the other is used as the “highlight” or focal point so that it really stands out.

In the case of the purples and yellows additional use of support colours used to prop up or highlight the dominant colour is used, these were Tasman Blue (which I thought I owned but could not find in my kit) and burnt sienna. These are added to the purple to darken it, lighten it or warm or cool it.

You can use white in all the complementaries that your select for a painting as well so there is a large range of tonal values you can create.

The mixing technique had me confused here. It seems that the best recipe is that you can mix purple with these supporting colours (Tasman blue and burnt sienna) but not the yellow, it can only be mixed with a mix of the purple and one of its supporting colours (for example purple and Tasman blue). The goal is to create a unified look via the use of colour. this is because the purple was my dominant colour.

Another example is Viridian and Cadmium Red. You decide on the dominant colour and you can add the supporting colours to this. In this case colours such as burnt sienna and yellow light. The burnt sienna used to darken and warm and the other to lighten.

We were asked to take the time out of the workshop to practice mixing greens. This is the second time this has been talked about in a week for me. I am now feeling that this often overlooked colour, like greys and whites, is important to understand – especially in Australia where our greens in the natural bushland are so different to Europe and the USA.

During the following demonstration, David showed us how he works his colours from top to bottom and left to right of a painting. The tonal values and warmth are increased or decreased as he works his way from left to right and top to bottom.

For our second afternoon painting I did a little better job. I asked David if he has off days and was so relieved to hear that he does as well. I just don’t like having them in public. Anyway, I chose a subject I know very well so I could concentrate on the mixing of the colours. I wasn’t up to handling a new subject and the task of manipulating my paint.

For this session we used Green/Red complementaries. Cadmium red as the dominant and viridian as the prominent. The supporting colours were cadmium yellow light and burnt sienna. These were only to be mixed with the red this time. This was quite helpful as I was doing a race horse with jockey. The challenge is usually the jockey as I am still struggling with people. This time the balance came out a bit better and David gave me some tips on creating movement with a simple dash of the brush – that next step I am looking for in my work. It takes it from a copy from life to a unique personalised painting or artwork.

Day Five

Workshop Plan:

  • Complementary colour schemes
  • Demonstration (using our own references or copying one of David’s)
  • A Purple/Yellow Complementary scene
  • A Green/Red Complementary scene
  • Practice
  • Paint-on critique

What is Complementary Colour?

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Complementary Colour Scheme
Complementary colors are any two colors which are directly opposite each other, such as red and green and red-purple and yellow-green. In the morning we were asked to compose a painting using the yellow/purple combinations.

For further descriptions of colour systems I have found a very good web site that I used when researching further after yesterday’s workshop. If you are struggling with colour systems it has great diagrams and simple explanations. The web address is:

Here are some examples of the system:

Complementary colours

  • Purple
  • Yellow

Support Colours

  • Tasman Blue
  • Burnt Sienna
  • White

Keep in mind that you also have all the tonal ranges of these colours to use by the addition of white, so you are not as restricted as you may think at first. In one way, taking away the confusion of colours (as so many are out there) leaves you free to be more creative with your painting. If you keep in mind your tonal values as the colours are not of any importance.

This is another great exercise to show up your colour bias when painting. I now had a good idea that I was biased towards cool colours. This just means that more practice painting in the warm side of the colour wheel as the dominant (80% of the area) will make me better as a tonal artist no matter what the colour I am using. I will be free then to use any colour I like for any subject and get an excellent and believable result.


Try painting a scene with complementary colours from the colour wheel using the above diagram as your example, plus white. The colour straight out of the tube will be your darkest tone for that colour but you can use the two supporting colours that I mentioned earlier, and you can lighten it using the white to get as many values as you like. It doesn’t have to be photo realistic, in fact use the photo as a guide only, not as the rule to stick to. It may be a good idea to discard the photo after you have the basic idea and paint creatively and not as a slave to your reference.

During these exercises composition is not the main aim, I was totally unconcerned with creating a finished painting but learning the lesson of using the colours.

Below is one of the works I did at the workshop. It could always be improved but I was not aiming at completing a finished artwork, but at practice pieces. They reflect process and not completion and as such I am happy.

lesson in Complimentary Colours

David looked at all our works at the end of the day and showed us where our paintings could be improved. Apart from a couple of little marks and showing me how to create more movement, he left my second work alone.

David said he liked my second painting more than the first. I did as well, considering that I was having one of those days where I couldn’t get brain and hand to cooperate.

I plan to spend some time in the future practising my complementary colours, as I feel I can get some amazing results from this limited palette. I just need to find some interesting subjects that catch my eye and get to it.

Thank you David for yet another fantastic workshop!

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