Using complementary colours in coloured pencil

What are complementary colours?

Complementary colours are those on the opposite side of the traditional colour wheel. 

If you remember back to your school days you most likely learned that the three primary colours are red, yellow and blue. If you mix these in certain ways you can achieve orange, green and purple. 

These colours are arranged around a wheel with red opposite green, orange opposite blue and yellow opposite purple. However, there are countless shades of these colours in between. Let's look at how useful this wheel is when adjusting, mixing and contrasting colours in your artwork. 

The basic colour wheel

A basic colour wheel is a simple (though inexact) method of showing how colours react, mix and complement each other. 

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 from our optical mixing. Putting blue on the paper first and then yellow on top gives a very different green from the one produced by doing this in the opposite order.

The wheel above was prepared using a selection of 12 Caran d'Ache Pablo colours. Starting with the three primaries (yellow, red and blue) we add secondary colours (orange, violet and green) and then 6 tertiary colours (those in between - like blue green and yellow orange). 

Using the Primary blue segment as an example, it was created in the following manner. 

First the blue pencil was layered in the outer and inner segment as shown. The opposite colour if you take a line straight across the wheel is orange, so this was layered on what will become the dark ring. The blue was then layered on top of this, creating a greenish hue. 

On the other side of the wheel we reverse this, by first layering the complimentary colour of blue on the dark ring and then adding orange. 

This illustrates that adding the complementary colour has the effect of darkening an area in most cases. As you see, some colours darken better than others There is no perfect solution. 

If you wish to try this with your own colours follow the procedure below. 

Draw your own colour wheel

NOTE: The best secondary colours come from the choice of the nearest primary to the desired shade - i.e. the best orange comes from an orange red and an orange yellow as both contain the desired colour. If we select the 'other' pair of red and yellow we will get a dirty orange.

Now this might be what we were hoping to achieve, so it is not wrong, but it isn't necessarily what we were hoping to get.

Draw your main circle with two smaller ones inside it (to produce the band). Split your circle into 12 segments (30 degrees).

If we were painting we would select two yellows (an orange yellow and a green yellow); two reds (an orange red and a purple red); and two blues (a green blue and a purple blue). 

Using pencils we can't mix all of our base colours as we would when painting, so dip into your box of pencils and 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 progress. In this example we are looking at the blue and yellows and how we can get the secondary colour - Green. 

You can move on to 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, which demonstrates how different colours darken in different ways. 

In the notes above we have been looking at how the use of complementary colours provides a dark tone 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 work more lively and attractive, it gives us three dimensional form. The darker our darks our the lighter it makes our lights appear. red-agains

Use a complement for contrast

Complementary colours can also be used for a totally different approach. 

If you place a small amount of red in a picture and surround it with green, where will your eye be drawn? Yes, to the small red section! This is because a spot of a hue's complementary colour will zing and stand out from the surroundings. The same goes for a touch of blue against orange, or a tiny spot of yellow in a purple area.

Another thing to keep in mind is that for the strongest contrast the two colours should be of equal intensity. A pale blue against a blazing orange will not catch the eye in the same way as a royal blue for example. 

If your picture is half blue and half orange this will lessen the effect, as your eye won't be able to rest on a focal point. 

To summarise 

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 (such as Burnt Sienna) will produce a good black as all three primaries are involved.  

Paints are available in purer colours than pencils, and can be mixed together physically. 

When using coloured pencils we have to layer colours to optically mix them. Due to the fact that the pigment in the core may already be a mix to create the different hues, the order of layering can affect the resulting colour. This is very handy when trying to create dark tones, as it is likely that there is a hint of a different primary colour in your first pencil and layered with the remaining primary you will get a dull shadow colour. 

If you are trying to keep to clear, bright colours this can be a little more problematic, as just a tiny bit of the complementary will dull your result.

It is also important to keep in mind that some colours are very much stronger 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 of the paper with added yellow, you will need many layers of yellow to make an impression.

This is why watercolour tutors will always suggest that you start with the lightest colour, with the lowest tinting strength, and add the dark colour carefully to it. If you start the other way around, you will probably end up with a bucket of mixture rather than a small cupful!

A favourite combination of colours is to lay down an underpainting with dark red violet where we are going to add green at a later stage.  The translucency of most Coloured Pencils enables the green to filter the contrasting colour from underneath to produce a vibrant dark green.

A good exercise is to sketch out a small landscape with plenty of trees and bushes, along with a road winding into the distance. There is no need to be too detailed. Identify everywhere there is green and select a red violet pencil with reflects that value. Where the trees will be darkest use heavier pressure, lightening up in the midtones and leaving no colour where the trees will be the lighest value. Your drawing will resemble a film negative, in shades of red violet. 

Next by applying greens over the top you will get an instant dark green where your underpainting was the darkest. The combination of the underpainting in the complimentary colour followed by the addition of the 'correct' on top darkens or 'greys out' the principle colour. 

Few boxes of coloured pencil have enough dark colours for landscapes, but this isn't a problem if you are aware that you can darken the pencils you do have using colours from the opposite side of the colour wheel. 

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