In the second of three articles, I explore the complementary color strategy. The unique dual nature of complements gives painters two different ways to create harmony.
In Part 1, we learned that the key to creating color harmony was the use of color strategies — a set of color relationships that are proven to work well and can be used as a formula for building a color composition. The first strategy we looked at was analogous harmony. Because analogous colors are so closely allied on the color wheel, they form extremely tight harmonies, making them an ideal strategy for suggesting a unified and harmonious light.
Our next strategy, complementary colors, also generates harmony, but in very different ways. As painters well know, complementary colors reside on “opposite” sides of the color wheel; e.g., red versus green, blue versus orange, yellow versus violet. What makes them most interesting — and will be the primary focus of this article — is their unusual dual nature. When placed side by side, each heightens the visual intensity of the other. I call this a “radiant” complementary relationship. When those same colors are mixed together, however, they have the opposite effect — they begin to cancel each other out and produce neutrals. I call this a “neutralizing” complementary relationship. Johannes Itten described it this way: “Two such colors make a strange pair. They are opposite, yet they require each other. They incite each other to maximum vividness when together; and annihilate each other when mixed — like fire and water.”
As you might imagine, these two contradictory behaviors get at harmony in different ways.
For most painters color contrast is very desirable. The trick is to find contrasts that enliven the conversation among the colors, but not create such differences that the colors cease to be harmonious.
Harmony through opposition
If harmony implies an agreeable relationship among colors, how then can a pair of radiant complements, which have an innate opposition and vibration, be considered harmonious? Because colors that contrast aren’t necessarily disharmonious. For most painters color contrast is very desirable. The trick is to find contrasts that enliven the conversation among the colors, but not create such differences that the colors cease to be harmonious. Radiant complements are a unique type of contrast. They possess a special affinity for each other, a unique bond that is a perfect example of the truism “opposites attract.” Optically, they are bound through opposition and also want to be together.
Harmony through neutrals
Neutralizing complements generate harmony in subtler and less obvious ways than radiant complements. As we will see in the final article in this series, The Harmony of Neutrals, there is a natural unity formed among neutral colors. The color swatch below demonstrates how complementary colors, as they mix and share ingredients, begin to relate more closely.
The chart also demonstrates another important point, and one which we will see in each of the three paintings: both aspects of the complementary relationship can be expressed simultaneously. Although the vividness of the radiant relationship may be diminished, it retains some of its original ability to react and vibrate. And the shared ingredients of the neutrals create a relatedness between the colors.
Each of the three paintings below express both aspects of the complementary relationship: color pairings that have a natural affinity, bound together through opposition; and also unified by the sharing of color that occurs when the two complements mix to form neutrals. None of the paintings use an exaggerated expression of complements (i.e., pure violet and pure yellow), which would be a very heavy-handed implementation of the strategy.
Of the three paintings shown, ADM Elevator has the most obvious implementation of the complementary strategy — it is primarily about yellow and violet, with few other intervening hues. Violet and yellow have a natural affinity, bound together through opposition. They form a radiant relationship that is particularly effective for conveying a sunset. However, Paquet also demonstrates restraint. He doesn’t use the two complements at full intensity; that would heighten the radiant effect, but look very unnatural. Instead, the yellow in the sky commingles with violet to create soft neutrals, while in the ground, small touches of yellow dance across the snow covered ground.
Like ADM Elevator, Hill Top is also built upon a fairly decisive complementary pairing, in this case red and green. The patches of green leaves against the largely red-pink ground form a a radiant relationship and accounts for a lively conversation between all parts of the painting. Bechtold also expands beyond the complementary pairing by introducing a few other hues: orange and ochre at the bottom and in the zig-zag of the middle-ground, and the violet of the middle-ground (both of which are are analogous to the red). He makes a point of using neutral instances of the complements, as well: olive patches of leaves, which serve as a neutral counterpoint to the brighter green leaves, and dull reds behind the trees at left. Although Bechtold’s style is less naturalistic than Paquet’s, the painting remains nuanced because of the way he commingles the radiant and neutralizing aspects of the complements.
Yakutat Bay projects an immediate sense of unification and harmony. Like Hill Top it is also based on a red-green complementary pairing, but does so in a much subtler way. Complements don’t need to be used in a pure and highly radiant manner in order to be effective. We see a gentle radiant contrast between the pale pink snow at the top and the green ground below. At the same time, unity is built by keeping the overall color fairly neutral. This painting also demonstrates another strategy that contributes to the overall sense of unification: because the value contrasts are reduced, the illusion of atmosphere or “envelope” of light is increased. And as we so often see in the landscape, atmosphere has a very unifying effect on color.
Find out more about the painters featured in this story: