Complementary Palette for Pastel
Folks, this is the article that I wrote for Pastel Journal Magazine that is in the current edition. The article is reprinted below if you would like to see the layout-
Complementary colors are 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. Complements are the colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as yellow-purple, orange-blue, and red-green.
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.
This happens because the rods and cones in your eyes get saturated and overloaded by the red of the apple and the complement (green, or bluish green aura) magically appears.
You may need to try it again to get the effect. This is also why you see the “green flash” when the sun sets. As the sun dips low in the sky, it turns reddish orange before vanishing below the horizon. Your rods and cones overload with the intense reds, and flash green when the sun disappears.
Human eyes are geared toward the complements and will be attracted to any painting that skillfully uses the complements to create color harmony.
What does a complementary palette look like in pastel?
I first learned about the power of the complements from book called “The Yin/Yang of Painting” by Hongnian Zhang and Lois Wooley who both taught classes in NY. Their book describes a complementary palette as based on the complements plus warmer and cooler versions and the colors you get by neutralizing with the complements. Hongnian uses oil in the book, but the practice is easy to adapt to pastel (as evidenced in Wooley’s work).
To work with a complementary palette, you start with the main complements, (such as red and green) plus warmer and cooler versions of each them located on either side of the complements (such as red-orange, and red-violet in addition to blue-green and yellow-green). You can also use neutrals created by combining the complements, plus lighter and darker versions of them (see the chromatic scales).
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.
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. Once you learn to mix neutrals, you will never use a brown pastel again.
Neutrals are needed to show off the high chroma colors. If everything has the same color intensity, your eyes adjust, and color doesn’t stand out. Put a high chroma color against a neutral and it pops.
Hudson River School artists were well known for this. In this sunset painting by Frederic Church. Note the foreground is almost totally neutrals and the high chroma is reserved for the cloud of sunset color. See how it stands out in comparison.
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 stilt fishing shack off the Gulf coast.
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 pastel to tint and tone colors as needed.
Many novice pastelists make the mistake of using every color in the box on a single painting, or never building up colors by layering and neutralizing. The more you study color theory and integrate it into your art practice, the more appealing your paintings become. Even just adding a touch of the complements into a painting will make it pop visually, think of Van Gogh’s “Terraces De Café” and the skillful use of yellow and violet.
I’ve used a complementary palette system in my own work decades to create a stronger impact. Many artists have skillfully paired the complements to create memorable color, Lois Wooley’s delightful red/green palette portraits of children, and Hongnian Zhang’s yellow/violet palette of ballerinas. Some artists like Stephen Quiller and Jen Evenhus have adapted their own split complementary palette.
If you use color wisely, your viewers will be drawn to your paintings without knowing why. You’ll hear comments like “there’s something about this painting that I just love!”
Color harmony creates a calming and soothing effect in viewers, as does using a combination of neutrals and high chroma colors. When you work with the natural human reaction to color complements and smartly integrate it into your artwork, you are creating a memorable, and lasting impression that makes your work more meaningful and unforgettable!