• Shawn Dell Joyce artist

Complementary Palette for Pastel

I first learned about using a complementary palette from reading The Yin and Yang of Painting by Hongnian Zhang, from the Woodstock School of Art in NY. Zhang, originally from China, received vigorous training early in his career, and moved to America, started his own school, became an epic painter, and married artist Lois Wooley. The two collaborated on the book and a teaching method that includes using a complementary palette system.



Hongnian Zhang painting using yellow/purple palette

Why would anyone use a complementary palette?

Complements are basically eye candy. The rods and cones in your eyes delight in the complements. Where two complements meet, your eyes will dance back and forth along the edge, with gleeful abandon.


Try this experiment. Stare at this apple for a good 30 seconds-really burn it into your brain. Then move your eyes to this blank space. Stare at the blank space and an after-image will appear of a green apple. It may take trying it a few times to see it.



stare intently at the apple for at least 30 seconds

now look at this white box, see a ghost image of the green apple?


This happens because the rods and cones in your eyes get saturated and overloaded by the red of the apple and the complement magically appears. Human eyes are geared toward the complements and will be attracted to any painting that skillfully uses the complements to create color harmony.


Complements are the colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as yellow-purple, orange-blue, and red-green.





What does a complementary palette looks like in pastel?

To work with a complementary palette, would be to use the main complements, plus warmer and cooler versions of each them.


For example:

A yellow/purple palette would include the true primary yellow, plus a warmer (yellow-orange) and cooler (yellow-green) version of yellow. I could also include yellow ochre and umber as yellows. On the purple side, I would use true violet, plus a warmer (red-violet) and cooler (blue-violet) version. I’d also use black and white to tint and tone.


When you mix yellow and purple together, you get mud. Mud is a neutral, and all neutrals come from mixing the complements. But, if you vary the shades of yellow and purple, you get interesting neutrals. Much more interesting than any other color in your pastel box. (insert yellow/purple chromatic scale by Carol McIntyre)


Chromatic Scale yellow-purple by Carol McIntyre

If you adjust the amount of yellow and purple proportionately, you get a chromatic scale like this one. Note the beautiful neutrals in the center. Imagine what you could do with those beautiful neutrals!


I will often do studies using complementary palettes to decide which palette works best for a final composition. These studies are all made using only the compliments, plus warmer and cooler versions of each. These compliments are often layered or blended to create the neutrals and the color harmony.


To make a color study you want to start off with a value sketch or a black and white reference photo. This keeps you from being too influenced by the natural color of the scene. I’ll use this sunset beach scene.




Now use your color wheel to help you lay out your pastels. Use only the complements, plus warmer and cooler version of each. Add black and white.



orange/blue palette

Orange/blue palette study of the B&W photo

Work your way through each palette, making the same size study so that the only variable between the three are the colors.



Yellow/purple palette

Yellow/Purple Palette study

I liked the yellow/purple and wound up using this color study for the final painting.


Red/Green Palette

Red/Green study

Here are some of my paintings where I used complementary palettes. See if you can guess which complements?


This is using orange/blue...notice the red is orange-red and the green is blue-green.


Also Orange/Blue look for little bits of the complements. I often put just a touch of orange or a touch of blue.

Yellow/purple even the orange in the sky is yellow-orange