Before I rant, I want to say that it was the book Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox that opened the door to my journey along the path of understanding color, both the science and the artist’s application of color.  I am grateful and I highly recommend the book.  However, this morning when I opened the Wilcox newsletter I was dismayed.  Here I am, about to launch into a carefully designed series of exercises to post for artists to work toward understanding each pigment’s intrinsic value and the reason that red/green complementary colors do not work the way that purple/yellow or blue/orange work, when Wilcox posts an example of complementary colors that are not true complements. Link to the Wilcox page of newsletters… click on the August / September Newsletter.  Notice that the green is a very yellow/green (clearly a much higher key value than the true complement of the red illustrated in the example).  The blue is also not a true, primary blue in relationship to the orange in his example.  Sorry that I’m being so picky, but these are the kinds of examples that led me to grave misunderstandings of color mixing during my early years of oil painting.

I have created my own examples from which I will build the future lessons and examples.  I believe that there has to be an agreement on basic truths of a color wheel (if there is such a thing). With that basic understanding one has the tools necessary to deviate from the basics and truly take on color in a personal and creative manner.  What a joy it is to play with color!

Complementary Colors, Primary and Secondary

Color/gray scale value of the chart above

The light gray areas in the lower middle square are due to my scanning the swatch before it was totally dry.  The orange swatch looks a bit browned on my monitor.  The orange is the same as in the example below where it scanned truer to color.  Try making your own color swatches to see what you think about the reaction between the sets of complementary colors.  Squint at the gray scale value chart and notice the lack of contrast in the red/green squares.  Notice the extreme difference in values in the purple/yellow squares.  You can, of course, alter the value by diluting the pigment or adding white (or yellow) to a pigment.  That, however, neutralizes and/or subdues the intensity of the hue.

The images above show strips of primary and secondary colors with value strips alongside each.  I have included a gray scale version of the same image to clarify value comparisons of the colors.  It is often difficult, even for the trained eye, to discern the true value of a color or hue.  Squinting helps.

I point this out, not to be difficult, but to show that you can, as an artist, manipulate colors for the desired effect.  You can make red and green interact powerfully if you deviate away from the true complement of red and use a green that is closer to a yellow.  Adding yellow to the green will be more effective if you want bright, energetic color, than adding white to green to make it lighter.  Adding a bit of dark blue to the green will also make the red jump a bit more against the green because the dark blue will darken the green without neutralizing it as much as adding purple or black.

I have made these charts using watercolor pigments adding only enough water to allow me to apply them to the paper, avoiding dilution and lightening of value.  I have attempted to use basic primary colors and secondary colors to illustrate my point.  I consider yellow/green (or green/yellow) to be a near complement of red, not a complement.  When discussing color theory, the difference is significant.


Anjou Pears.  Watercolor Study by Chris Carter

Anjou Pears. Watercolor Study by Chris Carter


Exploring the various aspects of Color Theory, though fascinating to some, is simply a mental exercise that will not improve your painting unless it is put into practice.  At first it takes a conscious (and for me, rather painful) effort to break old habits and to go back to a new beginning.  Two years ago I decided to retrain my eyes, my mind and my hand to explore the vast world of color at my fingertips.  I began each day painting a small watercolor or oil.  Each night I overloaded my brain with as much “book” information on light and color that I could read before falling asleep.  If I paint all day, every day, for the next thirty years I know I will not exhaust the possibilities of color nor the pleasure I experience from the journey.


Bosc Pear.  Watercolor Study by Chris Carter

Bosc Pear. Watercolor Study by Chris Carter


I’m not sure that I emphasized the importance of challenging your understanding of “color theory” by putting it to the test through painting.  This sounds rather obvious, but putting into practice what one knows is not always easy and it does not always follow naturally.  I have posted a couple of the watercolor studies I painted when I first returned to the study of color and color schemes.  I began each morning by painting a small, quick study of fruit.  These simple, fun, studies revealed both my understanding and my lack of understanding.  I was free to experiment and compare the results without the pressure of judging the quality of the finished painting.


Green Apple.  Watercolor study by Chris Carter

Green Apple. Watercolor study by Chris Carter


The painting of the Anjou Pears is a study using two complementary colors, yellow and purple.  The study, Bosc Pear, is an Analagous color scheme.  I think it would be more exciting if the shadow were more purple than green.  The study of the Green Apple is a study using what might be referred to as a Semi-Triadic Complementary color scheme.  One might also think of it as an Analagous with one Complement color scheme.  It doesn’t matter what you call it.  What matters is that you paint the study beginning with an intention and that you review that intention as you paint, allowing yourself to be free to change your mind and go in a slightly different direction if you wish.  Every path will provide an experience to add to your book of Color Knowledge.

Following strict rules usually results in paintings devoid of joy, energy and inspiration.  Set your rules and then see how far you can push them.  When you break the rules you will do it with intention, not from lack of knowledge.  The result is often shockingly delightful.

As I find time I will post comments and reviews about the books I have listed on the “Book Pages”.  I welcome all comments and additional suggestions and reviews of books you have found useful, inspiring and informative.

I also welcome suggestions and reviews of equipment, tools, paints, brushes, etc.  Soon there will be pages added for easy reference for both studio and en plein air painting.