Australian Fine Artist

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 split complementary colours. For this exercise I chose a pic that I have painted a few times before as my first work, as I know it so well I could concentrate on the aim of the exercise, being the understanding of how to use split complementaries and how to correctly select them. The original photo is in grey monotones so it helped me further by not making me have to translate colours on the fly, I only saw tones so the colour was not important.

Split complementary colours were popular with the Impressionists during the late 1800s.It gives a wide choice of colour whilst still keeping a theme or flow to the colour in a painting. The understanding of complementary and split complementary colour is important basic knowledge for colour manipulation. If the colour in your painting is not working, it may be because you are trying to use too many colours that are not relating to each other. Going back to basics and learning how to make colours work with each other and bring out the chroma in each other is an important step in learning to paint.

Colours can also be used to make other colours look darker or lighter without having to attempt to change them. For example, if you have the darkest tone of your blue but it doesn’t look dark enough, change the tone of the colour next to it. The tone and temperature of the adjacent colour will change how the blue looks. The instinct to “just add some black or similar colour” to make a colour look darker is not always the solution, especially if you want to keep your colours fresh and “clean”.

We had the colours selected for us in the morning session, so we were working from yellow and the colours either side of purple, which were a blue/purple and a red/purple. A puddle of red and blue were allowed next to these mixes on the palette to further increase the coolness or warmness of these colours. We could also mix the yellow with the two purples to create even more colours. The amount of rich colour and tone available from these and the addition of white was quite incredible.

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

Like the complementaries we did last month, one of the colours had to be the dominant one. I am slowly getting my head around this concept, which seems simple enough until you actually start painting.

Day Six

Workshop Plan:

  • Split Complementary colour schemes
  • A Red-Purple & Blue-Purple/Yellow Split Complementary scene Landscape or Seascape
  • A Red-Purple & Blue-Purple/Yellow Split Complementary scene Still Life
  • Paint-on critique

What is Split Complementary Colour?

Diagram courtesy of 2 different versions of split complementaries are shown here. Notice that they can overlap each other as in the case of the red-purple.

Diagram courtesy of
2 different versions of split complementaries are shown here. Notice that they can overlap each other as in the case of the red-purple.

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

  • Red-Purple and Blue-Purple
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Red-Purple and Orange

Support Colours

  • Tasman Blue
  • Red
  • White
  • Tasman Blue
  • Red
  • 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 split 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 change the pic to monotone or discard it 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 are the works I did at the workshop. They 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.

Yarra bridge revisited split complementaries still life split complementaries

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 clumping for my grapes (treat as one object rather than a load of little grapes), he left my second work alone.

David said he liked my second painting more than the first. I did as well, considering that it was a still life which is not my best subject yet.

I plan to spend some time in the future practising my split complementary colours, as I feel I can get some amazing results from this limited palette. I just need to find some subjects that catch my eye and get to it. I have a few new references form photos taken recently so will need to have a look and make some plans.

Thank you David for yet another fantastic workshop!

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