The 3 tricks of complementary colours you can learn from Van Gogh

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting, colour theory

complementary colours Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh, Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, 1888.

Complementary colours

Two colours, placed side by side, will appear differently depending on which colours are used and what they are placed next to.

The effect of this interaction is called simultaneous contrast.

Simultaneous contrast is most intense when two complementary colours are juxtaposed directly next to each other.

For example, red placed directly next to green, if you concentrate on the edge you will see a slight vibration.

Your eye doesn’t like resting on the edge. The two complementary colour in their purest, most saturated form don’t sit well together, however, if you want to try and focus your viewer gaze on a particular part of the painting a knowledge of the ‘attraction to the eye’ can be used to great effect…

Van Gogh’s painting technique

Orange and blue accentuate each other in Van Gogh’s Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, 1888 above.

In Van Gogh’s painting, he has a very bold use of colour. If we start to analyse the piece we can see how he has used the power of complementary colours and the colour wheel to heighten the visual effect of simultaneous contrast.

He wanted to move our eyes around the painting, not just by the composition, but by his use of complementary colour:

  1. The rear windows – have a very strong saturated orange sitting right next to a pure french ultramarine, this causes the shimmering effect to give the evening window light a ‘glow’.
  2. The front of the cobbles – He has used this effect on a more subtle level where the small arches of orange and blue add movement, reflecting the movement and life within a cafe.
  3. Warm and cool colours – add a visual depth to it due to the fact that cool colour recedes into the background and warm colours come forward.

In this example, Van Gogh has used complementary colours to his advantage and often went out of his way to create contrast and tension in his paintings.

When describing the painting below he commented to his brother Theo:

“I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four citron yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens….’

complementary colors Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Café, Arles, 1888.

However, the jarring nature of this visual effect is exactly that – jarring. So, if you want to create a painting that is more harmonious you can still use these principles but on a more subdued level.

Vermeer uses of complementary colour

Complementary colours Vermeer

Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658 – 60

In this Vermeer painting, The Milkmaid, we can also see the effect of complementary colours, albeit on a more subtle level.

Here he uses an approach using split complements which in general will create a subtle effect.

Split Complements

This is where you use one colour, for example, blue and instead of using its direct complement (orange) we split the colour wheel and use the next colour along. For this example, that would be a yellow-orange. This creates a nice visual balance, but also interest for our eye.

The main point of focus of this painting is the milk jug. Vermeer has the milkmaid’s gaze looking directly at it so we naturally follow her gaze to the object.

However, he still uses this visual effect by making the focus of the painting , the jug, a warm bright orange placed next to a bright blue of her dress to create a visual balance.

So how can this help me in my choice of colours when painting?

If you place a strong cadmium yellow next to a grey it will appear (to our eye) different than if it was placed directly next to its complementary colour, purple.(I’m using grey as an example because it is a neutral colour)

If you place a grey next to another stronger highly saturated colour, the grey will appear to have a slight tint of the surrounding or adjoining colour.

Creating a warm glow to your landscape painting

So if you want to create the illusion of a warm sunset, the first area of land nearest to the horizon line can be left a muted cool colour (blue, green) so the effects of simultaneous contrast can be used to create the illusion ‘glow’ of the horizon. The more muted the horizon line the most natural it will appear. (see: Titian’s use of warm and cool colours)

In Turner’s painting below you can see how he has used a muted blue background to emphasise the bright orange sunset.

complementarycolour-turner

J.M.W Turner, Slave ship, 1840

Why does this happen?

The actual paint colours are of course not altered; only our perception of them changes.

The grey on the left will appear to have a slight tint of the surrounding or adjoining colour.

Whereas the edges of the yellow square on the right have a ‘shimmer’ to them.

A brief history of simultaneous contrast

Michel Eugene Chevereaul, a French Scientist, was working as the director of the dye works at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. Whilst he was working there he received many complaints about the colours of the dyes, Specifically how the blacks appeared differently when used next to blues.

Researching this further, he realised that the yarn’s ‘perceived’ colour was being affected by the surrounding colours. This led to the idea of simultaneous contrast.

Why does this happen?

Our perceived ‘memory’ of an object can be very strong.

If a beginner learning how to paint places a banana under a red light it would cause our logical left brain memory some problems because we have such a strong memory of bananas being yellow.

Even if we see them as red your brain tells you, this doesn’t feel right, so you change the colour to something you feel more comfortable with, and then the painting looks ‘wrong’.

Colours can be tricky.

To try and counteract this effect artists often use isolated swatches of paint or viewfinders to try and perceive a colour on its own, in isolation, rather than trying to judge it next to another colour.

So the next time you are creating a painting withhold judgement on your colour mixing prowess until you have all the adjoining colours next to each other.

I often paint thin, more muted colours to start with and try and build up the whole picture at once. It then becomes easier for the eye to judge the correct balance of a hue. I leave the strongest, thickest paint for last, so I can choose exactly the tone and colour of the paint to pull the picture together.

One of the biggest mistakes you can do is working on one small section to completion before addressing the picture as a whole.

If you’d like to learn more about colour mixing, you should have a look at my simple colour mixing course.

You might also like:
How your hairdresser can teach you to mix colours
The hidden hues of colour mixing

 

{ 75 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Michelle January 28, 2012

Fascinating : )

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Will Kemp January 28, 2012

Thanks Anne, glad you enjoyed the article.
Will

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josh keedwell August 25, 2015

will, I was wondering if there were any artists that you know of that only use complementary colours?

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Will Kemp August 26, 2015

Hi Josh, any limited colour palette like a blue and orange painting just uses complementary colours, here’s a demo of one.
Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

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Josh Keedwell August 26, 2015

Thank you will I wasn’t to sure, I’m going to be starting my first year of gcse next week so iv been revising art types over the holiday, thank you again.

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Will Kemp August 26, 2015

Good one Josh, good luck with your GCSEs

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Tania March 7, 2012

Will, thanks so much for your articles, I have read a few of them this morning, they are easy for me to understand and full of information to help me along. I enjoyed this one on Van Gogh as my first ever acrylic painting (about a year and half ago) was after his Sunflowers painting.

All the best,
Tania

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Will Kemp March 7, 2012

Hi Tania,
You’re welcome, great to hear they are helpful in your painting progress. Van Gogh is a really good artist to start with as he has such a painterly approach. I might do a tutorial on “how to paint like Van Gogh” what do you think?
Will

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Alka Jha March 10, 2012

Hey hi….
I am an Indian and where can I read your blogs….or updates….
Though I am graphic design student…still I am fan of Van gogh…and i love the above update…interesting……
So where can I join u?

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Will Kemp March 12, 2012

Hi Alka,
Thanks for the message, I can let you know on updates to this post and will be shortly having an email update service, I’ll keep you posted,
Will

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Tania March 8, 2012

Hi Will,
I think a “how to paint like Van Gogh” tutorial would be wonderful! Over the three or so months it took me to paint my sunflowers I really reflected on how much The Old Masters have to teach us and it was by doing that I really saw the brilliance of Van Gogh and how much more there is to learn.
Tania

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Will Kemp March 8, 2012

Hi Tania,
Studying an Old Master painting really can teach you loads! I’ll get working on a tutorial for ‘How to paint like Van Gogh” I think it will be great fun to do.
Thanks,
Will

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Sue dee November 12, 2012

Thanks again Will You-are a wonderfully teacher and love your sense of humour. I have read a load of different books and got more and more confused, You have sorted a lot out for me. Love hearing about split complementary. Would love a video of country landscape some where a bit wild in a lose style. Thanks again Sue.

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Will Kemp November 12, 2012

Hi Sue, you’re very kind, pleased to hear the articles have been helping to ‘put it all together’

Cheers,
Will

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maebel January 16, 2013

Hi Will,

Great blog and awesome tutorials, keep it up.

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Ruby March 6, 2013

Hi Will,
This is a great site I have finally found some of Vincent Van Goghs famous complementary colours paintings perfect for my art homework thanks again
Ruby

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Will Kemp March 6, 2013

Thanks Ruby, pleased to hear it’s helped out with your homework.
Cheers,
Will

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Maria March 14, 2013

Hi Wiill,
Greetings from the Land of Enchantment (New Mexico, USA). I am so excited to have run across your fabulous tutorials, and I can’t wait to get started tomorrow morning. I’ll work on the red cherry first and send you a pic when I’m finished.

Muchas gracias (Many thanks)
Maria

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Will Kemp March 14, 2013

Hola Maria, enjoy the cherry painting tutorial, looking forward to seeing your results.

Cheers,
Will

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Virginia July 27, 2013

I just found your website and I can’t wait to get started! How convenient to work at home. Thank you so much for putting this school online.

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Will Kemp July 27, 2013

Hi Virginia, pleased you’ve found the website, enjoy exploring the articles and tutorials.
Cheers,
Will

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Faith August 2, 2013

cool

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Candace September 1, 2013

Just wanted to thank you so much for all of the useful information. You are doing a real service here.

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Will Kemp September 1, 2013

Thanks very much Candace, very kind of you to say so,
Cheers,
Will

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Hardy September 14, 2013

Ive spent 35 years filming dolphins. Just startedbpainting and your site is brilliant. Checking outnyour tutorials. Probably color mixing will be my first.

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Will Kemp September 16, 2013

Hi Hardy, wow, sounds fascinating, pleased you’re enjoying the site,

Cheers,
Will
P.S. A phthalo blue with a green shade is a fantastic colour for creating brilliant turquoise seas.

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sally bertean September 16, 2013

wow i love how when you know complementary colors it is so easy to see them in painting. Love these paintings you have on here by the way!

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Will Kemp September 16, 2013

Thanks Sally, pleased you’re enjoying the site,
Cheers,
Will

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Sundee Love October 2, 2013

Hi Will,

I think your tutorials are wonderful and they really help me with alot of my work!
Thanks,
Sundee

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Will Kemp October 3, 2013

Pleased to hear it Sundee.

Cheers,
Will

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shaun killian December 4, 2013

Enjoyed your articles…i have so much to learn…..just completed oil and aryclic course…by south african artists Neil Moss..what he lectured , showed and explianed so inline with your material….i be on this site regually …thanks shaun

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Will Kemp December 4, 2013

Thanks for dropping by Shaun, so pleased you’re finding the tutorials helpful in your painting.

Cheers,
Will

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Kaya December 5, 2013

Great tips, very usefull. Now I can understand how to build my paintings. I was also disappointed my paintings beacuse of darkness so I started to use a lot white. It was really lighter but didn’t work…I wanted to make contrast using dark and light colours. I didn’t know about warm and cold colours and I owned about 20 kind of colours! Now I don’t know what for ;) THANK YOU

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Will Kemp December 6, 2013

Good one Kaya,

Pleased it helped.

Will

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Hardy Jones December 6, 2013

I’m taking Will’s color mixing course and it is helping a lot – starting with a proper ground color then setting out colors to get a sense of the balance.

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Will Kemp December 6, 2013

Great to hear it Hardy, pleased it’s helping with your paintings.

Cheers,
Will

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Kevin Woolsey December 29, 2013

Thank you so much. Van Gogh was the real deal. Can’t get enough of him.

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Will Kemp December 30, 2013

Thanks Kevin, really pleased you enjoyed the article.

Cheers,

Will

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Rae January 13, 2014

I love your work

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Will Kemp January 13, 2014

Thanks Rae,

Will

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Hardy Jones January 14, 2014

Van Gogh tutorial would be fantastic. Will’s stuff on completmentary color is finally getting me out of my MUDdlle of colors. Hardy

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Nissy April 24, 2014

Just discovered your tutorials and im so so fascinated… love the way you make it all sound so simple. Painted my 1st acrylic yesterday and today i know why so many things went wrong (dint prep my canvas with ground colour, used my brush to mix colours, used a plastic palette to mix the colours… ugh!). Looking forward to learning from you. Thank you!

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Will Kemp April 24, 2014

Hi Nissy, really pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons and congratulations on your first painting!
Cheers,
Will

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Hardy Jones April 24, 2014

Will, I’m doing a ground for a painting of an antarctic sunset. Foreground is deep purple with bg being orange and yellow topped by black/blue. I’m inclined to split the undercoating to a Payne;s grey for foreground and a yellow orange (light with plenty of white) for the sky/background. ???

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Will Kemp April 25, 2014

Hi Hardy, yes that would work, just make sure to soften the line between the two when you paint them on so there is a subtle transition between the two.

Cheers,
Will

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Braxton Bunch August 20, 2014

Hey Will! I’m glad you made this website. In fact, I’m actually studying Complementary Colours on my homeschool, Easy Peasy All In One Homeschool! And thanks a bunch! Won’t be on here for a while. ;)

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Braxton Bunch August 20, 2014

And im also 11. :)

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Will Kemp August 22, 2014

Good one Braxton

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Emma Brett September 11, 2014

Hi Mr. Will,
wow i really like this website i like your humor in your writing.
im learning about comlementary colours to!
I also use Easy Peasy allinone homeschool.
You really help me under stand what to use these colours for.
thanks a lot !!!!!!

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Will Kemp September 18, 2014

Good one Emma, pleased you’ve been finding the website helpful.
Cheers,
Will

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Jazmyn October 14, 2014

Hello Will,

I’m Jazmyn and I use Easy Peasy all in one Homeschool – it’s not as easy as it sounds. I am studying complementary colors and couldn’t really get the hang of it. Your article cleared everything up for me.

Thanks a million
Jazmyn

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Will Kemp October 14, 2014

So pleased to hear you found it helpful in your studies Jazmyn.
Cheers,
Will

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hannah j September 17, 2014

hey i do easy peasy and this website really helped a lot.i am really into art. But i want to be a fashion designer when i grow up. i think that counts as art do you?

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Will Kemp September 18, 2014

Sure does count Hannah, pleased you’ve been finding the website helpful.

Cheers,
Will

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vincent September 24, 2014

I like the way you use the colors and I want to paint like you. sorry for the spelling

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Leslie October 27, 2014

Thanks! This is going to really “complement” my student lecture.

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Will Kemp October 31, 2014

Pleased to hear it Leslie.
Cheers,
Will

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Dick January 17, 2015

Very informative article! In photography we have yellow opposite to blue so Vermeer looks very natural to me. We also have no orange to adjust directly.
Thanks.

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Will Kemp January 17, 2015

Pleased you found it helpful,
Cheers,
Will

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Hardy Jones January 17, 2015

Thanks for this posting. It just reminded me how to solve a problem painting a local marsh. There was not enough value contrast until I applied this maxim.

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Will Kemp January 19, 2015

Great to hear it Hardy.
Will

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Alan Stewart June 28, 2015

Hi Will. I stumbled upon your pages by accident, but what a great accident! I’m learning so much, and keen to keep on learning. My current project is a copy of Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night”, so I’ve found the notes and comments on this part of the site to be very useful. Many thanks!

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Will Kemp June 30, 2015

Really pleased you’ve been finding the articles of interest Alan, hope it helps with your project.
Cheers,
Will

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Svetlana September 2, 2015

Hi Will
I am very thanksfull about your Course Simply mixing , i learned very much from it.
Please can you tell me, if we have pigments opaque how we can make from them transparent, you are going to help me so much ,
Sincerely Svetlana

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Will Kemp September 3, 2015

Hi Svetlana,

The opacity or translucency of a pigment is dependent on the chemical properties of the pigment. The only way to make an opaque pigment appear more translucent is to dilute the pigment with water or a medium.

Cheers,
Will

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brogan October 1, 2015

love the paintings

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Cali March 18, 2016

Wow! This is part of my homework and it helped, a lot! Thanks, Will!!!
Cali

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Linda James August 25, 2016

Will, I can see clearly now as the song says! I knew there was something I did not know about color theory! As you said, my paintings all looked like color enhanced pictures! I lean toward portraits but occasionally would attemp landscapes only to be disappointed. Now, for the third time, I will attempt a landscape for a commission work! Thank you!

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Will Kemp August 30, 2016

Great to hear it Linda, really pleased you enjoyed the article, hope the landscape painting goes well.
Cheers,
Will

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Creepercreeps101 May 23, 2016

A 13 year old learning about colours LOL thx Will

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Gloria September 12, 2016

Loved the article. It Helped a lot. I hope you keep it up. This article and some others
read were great. I do Easy Peasy and I was wondering if you have any more stuff on complementary colors.

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Will Kemp September 13, 2016

Hi Gloria, pleased you found it helpful, here is a tutorial using the complementary colours orange and blue.
Hope you enjoy it,
Cheers,
Will

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Emma Stone September 14, 2016

I loved the paintings, Will thanks a lot!!!!

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Zelda September 29, 2016

Hi I really enjoy your insight and lessons – Ive leant sooooo much and try to use my knowledge when painting. Thanks for sharing.

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Liv November 14, 2016

In my opinion Van Gough is one of the best painters

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