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PART 1 : A BASIC LOOK AT COMPLEMENTARY COLOURS Complementary Colours are those on the opposite side of the traditional colour wheel which we were taught about ( possibly ) at school. The three primary colours ( Red, Blue and Yellow ) are joined by the three secondary colours (Orange, Green and Purple). These are arranged around a wheel with Red opposite Green, Orange opposite Blue and Yellow opposite Purple. There will be countless shades of these colours in between. Let us look how useful this wheel is in adjusting, mixing and contrasting colours.
A Colour Wheel is a simple ( though inexact ) method of showing how colours react with each other, mix with, and complement each other. Complementary colours lie opposite each other across the wheel. Working with coloured pencils is very different from working with paint as we don’t mix colours - we layer them to provide a visual blend. Depending on the colour order we can get very different colours result from our optical mixing. Blue first on to the paper results in a very different green from the one produced by putting down a yellow first This second illustration of a wheel has been prepared using a selection of 12 Caran d’Ache Pablo colours. Starting with three nearest to the primaries, ( Yellow, Blue and Red ), we add secondary colours ( Orange, Violet and Green ) and then 6 Tertiary Colours ( those in between - like ‘Blue Green’ and ‘Yellow Orange’) Here we are looking at the effect of blending colours from across on the opposite side of the wheel to create a darker tone The aim is to finish with the circular band in the middle of the segments ( as shown on the right ) which has the opposite colour as an underpainting. The wheel then illustrates how the complementary colour underneath will darken the later colour ( except for the yellow over the purple, which - perversely - lightens it ) These darker colours show up as a circular band within the wheel   As you see, some colours darken better than others. There is no prefect solution.   If you wish to try this with your own colours, follow the procedure below. Draw your main circle with two smaller ones within it ( to produce the band ). Split your circle into 12 segments (30 degrees ), and select 12 colours from your box. If we were painting, we would select two yellows ( an orange yellow and a green yellow ) : Two reds ( an orange read and a purple red ) and two blues ( a green blue and a purple blue). The best secondary colours come from the choice of the nearest primary to the desired shade….. ie the best orange comes from an orange red and an orange yellow ( both contain the desired colour ) If we select the ‘other’ pair of red and yellows we will get a ‘dirty orange’ - which may well be what we desire in a painting, but not what we need here. Using pencils, we can’t mix all our base colours as we would with painting, so dip into your box of pencils and select 12 colours that represent the full range round the wheel We can ‘make’ colours with pencils to a modest extent .. as in the blue/yellow green wheel shown. In this example we are looking at the blues and yellows and how we get out secondary colour, Green. You can move on the develop the whole wheel - and when you have all your main colours in place, complete the second layer of complementary ( opposite ) colours in the mid way band. When you have reached this stage, work over the top of each segment again with the main colour.  This will intensify the main colour and show up the dark band in the centre of the segment which demonstrates how different colours darken in different ways.
The principle is that mixing the three primary colours together will produce a grey or black (depending on the strength of the colours used )  Mixing dark blue with dark orange will produce a good black as all three primaries are involved.   With paint, and pigments,  this becomes a little complicated by the fact that no individual colour is ‘pure’ and most manufactured colours contain a blend of colouring compounds.  This is what makes a lemon (green) yellow different from an orange yellow.  In Watercolour the best two colours to mix for a vibrant black are Dark Ultramarine (a blue with a purple content), and Burnt Sienna (a dark orange red) or any similar combinations of blue and dark red.  The most intense colours produce the darkest mixtures. With pencils we use the technique of building up depth of colour with layers, and this enables us to employ the same principle to produce darker tones of our selected colours without employing the dreaded blacks and dark greys. We do have to be cautious though, as some colours are very much stronger in tinting than others.  If you blend a yellow with a dark blue, you tend to need a lot of yellow to counteract a small amount of blue.  This is because the blue has a much higher tinting strength.  As with watercolour and other liquid paints, it is always better to start with the less saturated colour (in this case the yellow ) and add the blue.  If you lay down the blue and try to influence the shade on the paper with added yellow, you will need a lot of yellow to make an impression.  This is why tutors in watercolours always suggest you start with the lightest colour with the lowest tinting strength and add the dark colour carefully to it. To start the other way around, you will probably finish up with a bucket of mixture rather than a small cupfull !! A favourite combination of colours is to lay down an underpainting with dark Mauve Red or Purple where we are going to add green at a later stage.  The transparency of most Coloured Pencils enables the green to filter the contrasting colour from underneath to produce a vibrant dark green.   A good exercise to try, is to sketch out a small landscape with plenty of trees and bushes and possibly a road winding into the distance.   Your picture does not need to be too detailed - I show one of my Acrylic pictures of Edale in Derbyshire to give you some ideas but you don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to copy this picture - just use it as a starting point and treat it purely as an exercise. Identify everywhere there is green and select a red pencil which reflects the darkness. So, in the areas which will have the darkest greens, put your darkest red shading. Leave the lightest areas with no colour. Now pick out some of those darks in the main oak tree foliage right of centre. Your picture should be shades of red  much as a negative Photo image would look. NEXT, by applying greens over the top of the reds you will get an instant dark green where the darkest reds have been placed. The combination of the underpainting in the complementary colour followed by the addition of the ‘correct’ colour on top darkens or ‘greys’ out the principal colour.  Your underpainting is a ‘grisaille’. Few boxes of Coloured Pencils have nearly enough dark colours for landscapes. You don’t really need them anyway as you can make the colours you have darker by mixing the colours from across the colour wheel. When I get time, I will do the exercise on Edale above and show the results here to make it clearer.
To Summarise
This is a traditional olour wheel designed to aid painters in mixing colours and understanding how colours work with each other. Colours are arranged around the wheel - in this case to show complementary colours
In the notes above, we have been looking at how the use of complementary colours provides a dark without using the dead hand of black in the mixture. Shadow is an essential component of our picture making. Not only does contrast make our picture more lively and attractive, and the dark areas make our lights even lighter, shadow gives us three dimensional form
This red rectangle on the paper could be anything. This yellow rectangle has shadow added through using darker yellows and is clearly a button that needs pressing
Comparative colours can also be used for a totally different approach. If you place two comparative colours next to each other, they will react with each other in the eye and create a point of focal interest Remember how a red telephone box or post box stands out in a green countryside. Or a red geranium stands out among the greens in a garden. So apart from using Complementary colours to darken we can also use them to add some ‘Zing’ to a picture and bring the focus round to a particular point
These notes cover two topics from the old web site both looking at colour mixing and how it relates to coloured pencils. This is the first merger of those articles and they will eventually be re-written into one logical chapter. At the moment some elements may repeat FIRSTLY WE HAVE THE BASIC EXPLANATION SECONDLY WE HAVE A MORE IN DEPTH LOOK AT THE SUBJECT
PART 2 : A MORE TECHNICAL LOOK AT COMPLEMENTARY COLOURS Colour mixing does not seem to have a great importance to many artists who use Coloured Pencils, but an understanding of colour and how it works is vital if we are to handle colour properly.  My own experience of this area is based on working with a variety of media - including Watercolour, Acrylics and Oils and not totally based on theory.  A little knowledge is very useful, though, and will help your understanding of the way you use colour. There are many books available that go into the technicalities of colour and a good Internet place to look for very detailed explanations of Colour Theory is the web site built by Bruce MacEvoy, www.handprint.com . Bruce guided me in my early explorations of watercolour many years ago, and his site now sees over 2,500 visitors a day.  The Handprint web site specialises in Watercolour, but the theory part is very valuable for any artist I have not copied Bruce’s work, but I have written up a page here that provides what I hope will be a simple explanation of how colour works and why we need to understand it to present satisfactory artwork in CP. As with all freshly written topics, it could well be that the content will be revised and refreshed over the next few months as I read and re-read it and refine what it says.    Please bear in mind that my explanation takes the subject simply. It is intended for beginners as a basic guide to understanding - not  a thesis for experts !  To explain things a simply as possible, I need to ignore some complications…. Please bear with me.. COLOURED LIGHT BEHAVES QUITE DIFFERENTLY TO COLOURED PIGMENT.
If you add coloured lights together you get white ( or progressively reach white as you add more and more colours ) This is known as additive colour If you add pigments together, you get nearer and nearer to black. This is known as Subtractive colour When we mix colours with paint we need to think in terms of Subtractive colour But at the same time we need to be aware that Coloured light handles differently and this will have an effect on how we see Coloured Pencil work which relies on layers of colour and filtered light through those layers I am assuming that you know the three primary colours Yellow - at the top of this colour wheel Blue  - at 8 o’clock and Red -  at 4 o’clock Mixing pure Yellow and pure Blue ( which don’t exist in life) would produce the pure Green shown in between them.   Similarly mixing the Red and Blue should produce Purple and mixing the Yellow and Red should produce Orange This would be so in a perfect world, but this isn’t a perfect world. WHY DO WE SEE DIFFERENT COLOURS ? White light falls on white paper and we see white paper. All the light which falls on the paper is reflected - and we see the paper as white
White light is made up of a whole collection of coloured light - such as we see in a rainbow - with a spectrum of colours ranging from Red through Orange -  Yellow - Green - Blue - Indigo - to Violet.  There are a host of variations of these of colours in between and in addition Infra Red at one end and Ultra Violet at the other, which exist, but can’t be seen by the naked eye. Pigments are natural ( inorganic - made from rocks and stone) and manufactured ( organic - often dyes from chemical processes). These materials affect the way light is absorbed and reflected from a surface.  They may be pure pigments but they are not pure colours. A ‘White’ pigment ( like Titanium Dioxide ) allows all the light to reflect, the blend of colours making up white light are unchanged. The eye sees White paper If that ‘bundle’ of coloured light we see as ‘white’ falls on a surface that has been treated with colour, we see the surface as ‘coloured’ WHY ? Because the pigment absorbs some of those colours from the white light and only allows some colours to reflect and be seen by the eye. If it only absorbs a small amount of the light we see the colour as light or bright. If the surface absorbs a lot of the light and a only small amount is reflected, we see the colour of the surface as dark. WAIT A MINUTE !!!!!!! That image alongside to the right, shows green paper and red light - how come ? What I am showing here is that the pigmented material is absorbing all the yellow and blue light from the white light ( making green) and only showing reflected red light So taking it at it’s most basic, If you shine a green light at a piece of paper that appears to have  red colouring, all the green light will be absorbed by the pigment and the coloured parts of the paper will appear to be black or dark
I  am not sure this illustration of a red fish with a green filter over part of the image is an ideal example, but it is the best I can come up with for the moment. This was done on the computer . I think for the purposes of the Coloured Pencil examples, it would be better if I did an actual example in CP and photographed it, but I don’t have time at the moment - a better example will follow. Anyway, the idea is to show how the original red is killed by a later layer of green transparent colour over the top. The lower slices of colour in the example enable you to see more clearly how a thin layer of the transparent green makes a dramatic difference to the original red colour, and produces a darker version of the green by using the complementary colour below.
This darkening effect is the effect of using complementary colours. WHAT ARE COMPLEMENTARY COLOURS ? If you look again at that wheel, you will see that Red lies on the exact opposite side of the wheel from the blue and yellow mixture of Green. RED is the COMPLEMENTARY COLOUR of Green. In the same way, Blue is the Complementary of  Orange and Yellow is the Complementary of Violet. But this is the real world and colours in real life don’t quite behave like this. We don’t have ‘Pure’ colours - we have colours made from materials that are close to - but not quite the same as pure colours. We have yellows that are green-ish,  we have reds that are purple-ish Colours in a tube of paint or a Coloured Pencil are a blend of colours so they will not always behave as we would expect. Some pigments are strong and will provide strong blends ( e.g. Phthalo Green and Blue ), Other colours are light on tinting strength ( many Yellows ) So equal amounts of different pigments do not have the same effect when mixed If you want a dark mixture, you will have to have a balance of tinting strengths and the darkest possible colours in the mix. A regular mix in watercolour for a very dark grey/ black is a mix of Ultramarine Blue ( a dark blue with purple in it) and either Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber ( dark red with some orange ). By adding a little more of one or the other colour in the mix, you can get a whole raft of shades or dark blues, blacks greys and browns Let us get back to pencils for a moment With Wax type Coloured Pencils, we are layering colour to build up the exact tint and depth of colour we want. If we use a complementary colour in a layer, it will have the effect of darkening the later layer. The white natural light passing through a green top layer will become filtered to become green light and suddenly find itself being absorbed by the ‘red’  layer underneath.   We will see a much darker colour as so much light is being absorbed. Depending on the strength of the pigment you will see differing results. A strong pencil blue over a weak pencil yellow will have little effect in making a green, just as mixing a equal amount of light lemon yellow paint with  Phthalo blue will not produce a mid green - if you are lucky it might just achieve a slightly greenish blue.  You need to know that colours need to be balanced in mixing or blending. Always start with your weakest colour when mixing paint, and add small amounts of a strong colour to make your mixture. Try doing it in reverse and you will need a bucket to put your mixture in ! With Coloured Pencils on white paper, we have an extra factor to consider. The first colour to be put down on the fresh white paper will have a 70% effect on the final colour ( provided later layers are transparent ) Later layers will have progressively less and less an effect as the wax begins to acquire a polish and less and less colour is taken up by the surface. If we use a weak colour as the foundation colour, this will give it greater power in any blended colour - though a lot will still depend on the strength of later colours applied! If we under paint Coloured Pencil with watercolour - or use another medium underneath - we can use complementaries to get very useful darks ( Reds under Greens are a case in point for landscape artists ).  If we use a wash of dark red underneath areas that will be green later,  we gain very vibrant greens once the Green Coloured Pencil is applied. Complementary colours also have a great effect when they are used with the two colours not mixed, but in close proximity. Here the effect is to have the colours vibrate together in the eye and become a point of focus in the picture WHAT SHOULD WE LOOK OUT FOR WHEN CONSIDERING WHICH COLOUR TO USE ?.  
When I look at the pigment colour in a coloured pencil, or colour in a tube or block of paint and have to decide whether to use it on its own  or mix another colour with it, what factors influence my decisions ? First of all the colours in the pigments we buy are not pure colour. They are mixtures which arise naturally from the chemicals involved - either naturally  (if the colours come from natural sources) - like Umber , Sienna or Ochre, or ‘organically’ if they are manufactured as part of a chemical process, which many modern lightfast and permanent colours are. Examples of organic colours are the Phthalo blues and greens, the Arylide yellows and the Quinacridone oranges and rose colours. Look at a range of colours available in a manufacturers collection. There are many different yellows and reds, a range of blues and greens, and many other colours that are ‘not quite ‘ the same but very close to each other.
This is the colour range from Staedtler, Manufacturers of the karat Aquarelle pencils which come in a full set of 60 colours. I have chosen this colour set as an example as it covers the basic range of colours in a convenient shade card. See the difference between the lemon yellow No 12 ( 6th colour in the first row on the left) which has a high green content and the bright yellow 110 (1st column  5th colour ) which has a higher red content. You don’t need 60 colours, 30 are usually enough in pencils to give you a working set.  12 watercolours or other tube media are usually a good basic range
You will see that in most recommended palettes of watercolours there may be two reds, two yellows and two blues suggested. These will be a warm and a cold version of each primary colour  ( e.g. a ‘cool’ greenish lemon yellow and a ‘warm’ reddish or orange yellow etc). LET US JUST THINK OF GREEN FOR A START ( the same rules apply for mixing other colours though) If we wish to produce the purest and brightest green mixture from yellow and blue, the best places to start are the greenish yellow and the greenish blue, as both these colours have a good ‘green’ content.   If we select the orange yellow with the purpleish blue, the green content of the colours we are mixing is low and we will get a dark or ‘dirty’ green ….which may well be exactly what we want. If we select one ideal and one less suitable colour to mix - by mixing -say -our orange yellow ( with a poor green content ) with a greenish blue ( like cerulean blue) we may well get a green that is closer to olive green - with a higher brown content.   
The three pairs of primary colours referred to on the left There is a ‘cold’ - line 1 and a ‘warm’ variant - line 2 of each colour This shows the mixing effect of using different yellows and blues. Lemon yellow above Orange yellow below The bottom pair is a cadmium yellow which has a red content and ultramarine blue which also contains red. Red is the complementary of green so we have a dark dirty greenish mixture as the green content of the yellow and blue is low. The brown appearance of this mixture ( from the red) is closer to tree foliage green than the purer, brighter green in the mixture above
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Thank about the colours that you are planning to put into your mixture.   WHAT colours are available to you  and what colours are in the make-up of those possible choices What colour is the colour we are trying to achieve? Which colours would be likely to make the best mixture ? I know that I am mostly thinking in terms of mixing paint colours like watercolour or acrylic, but the same rules apply when thinking of layering Coloured Pencil colours. A good rule in deciding what colours to mix, is to avoid mixing too many  colours together, or the impurities and peripheral colours in your components will add together to produce a ddirty result rather than a clean  bright colour. Watch out for ‘Earth’ colours like Yellow Ochre, Raw and Burnt Sienna and Umber etc. These are generally ground pigment from natural earths. Blending colours with them is speeding up the process to coloured mud - the Earth colours are virtual mud anyway ! These can make any watercolour process tricky and watercolour pencil users are not immune from mud. Some colours are made with only one pigment.   One pigment is usually best.   Pencil manufacturers rarely tell you what pigments they use.   Any paint manufacturer selling in the USA has to label the product with the ingredients which is a great help. Try not to mix more than three colours together.  Too many pigments often introduce a load of extra colour impurities If a single ingredient colour is made from several pigments ( Paynes Grey, Hookers Green for example), your colour is already bordering on the limit and adding more pigments may well give rise to problems. You don’t have this mixing problem with dry pencil colour as the colours are not actually blended. They are simply laying side by side and your eye does the mixing ( It is called Optical Mixing ).   You do have the problem if you use watercolour pencils and introduce water.
Page last revised September 2017