The Difference between "Mixing" and "Visual" Complements
This information could change the way you paint!

          Most artists know that complementary color pairs can be used for two functions. These are (1) for color mixing- to make clear colors more neutral and (2) for visual color enhancement- to make juxtaposed saturated colors appear even more brilliant. Most artists, however, are misinformed about the actual colors of complementary colors pairs. So read on! This information could change the way you paint!
The red Amarylis flowers appear particularly vibrant because they are surrounded by the VISUAL COMPLEMENT of red which is Turquoise blue green. Amarylis
          Long before I began to research color I realized that specific pairs of colors mutually enhance one another. This was because in my youth in England when I used to paint color coordinated plaster pixies to sell for extra pocket money, I found that certain combinations such as blue and yellow, were particularly pleasing. These same color pairs are what I now call "visual complements" though I didn't know them by that name in those days!
          My later experience as a painter, and research for my books led me to question the prevailing literature on the subject. It has become clear to me that there are not just one set of complementary color pairs but two sets. These are required for the two separate functions of color mixing and color enhancement. The colors of the two sets are definitely not the same though most artists are unaware of this. How about you! The good news is that if you use the right visual complements, the color in your paintings will be more exquisite and dazzling than ever before.
Color Squares
Lemon yellow appears much more vibrant when surrounded by its "visual" complement which is blue. Most artists erroneously pair yellow with purple for color enhancement which is related to the way the eye works (lateral inhibition and disinhibition).
          So let's take a moment here to get down to the basics. A complement is "that which completes". What do MIXING and VISUAL complements complete that makes them fundamentally different? "Mixing" complements complete the subtractive color mixing process. "Visual" complements complete the optical synthesis which is bound by the way our eyes work. Thus I coined the names "mixing" and "visual" complements to pertain to these two processes.
          "Mixing" complements, used for color mixing are pairs of colors that neutralize one another as an increasing amount of one is added to the other. i.e. green neutralizes red as increasing amounts of the green are added to the red. The actual color pairs are determined because they complete the subtractive color mixing process in which the amount of reflected light from a painted surface is subtracted with each admixture i.e. you paint gets darker! The right pairs (yellow/purple or red/green or blue/orange) will produce BLACK or a VERY DARK GRAY when mixed in the correct proportions. Mixing complements are usually placed opposite one another on the color wheel.
When neutralizing a color it is not necessary to have the precise "mixing" complement. A touch of any purple for instance will render most yellows quite unsaturated.
Quinacridone (Permanent) Rose (PV19 red shade)
Winsor Lemon (PY175)
Winsor Blue red shade (PB15)
Phthalo Green yellow shade (PG36)
Perinone Orange (PO43)
Carbozole (Winsor) Violet PV23
          "Visual" complements used for color enhancement are pairs of colors that make each one appear more vibrant when they are painted contiguously. i.e. blue will appear more vibrant if juxtaposed by yellow. (Color enhancement is an aspect of the phenomenon known as simultaneous contrast, related to how the eye works.)
          The actual color pairs are determined because they complete the optical synthesis in which the eyes equalize reflected light from a painted surface when viewed. Only the right pairs will produce a COLORLESS GRAY when painted in the correct proportions either on a disc and spun, or as dots as in Pointillism. Fortunately we don't have to go through this arduous process! The color pairs have been quantifiably established by Ellen Marx in her incisive book "Optical Contrast & Simultaneity" (1983 Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc). The corresponding pairs of artists' colors are listed below and shown in the vertical chart created for the Daniel Smith article. You will need to use precise colors for optimal color enhancement. Note that the colors of "visual" complements correspond to the colored "light" complements that complete the additive synthesis of adding colored lights. The right pairs when shone together yield WHITE light.
Here are the color pairs that I use for color enhancement. . If your favorite color is not listed, find the nearest visual complement that you can find! It is important to use the precise paints listed to achieve optimal color enhancement. Thus I have used the color index name such as PY175 (included on paint tubes) so that you can match the exact paint listed no matter which brand you are using. The brands that I have used are Daniel Smith and Winsor & Newton paints. Click here to link to WCO'S manufacturers' page.
1. Hansa Yellow Light PY3 (cool) & French Ultramarine PB29 rs Or Holbein's Ultramarine Deep PB29
2. Winsor Lemon PY175 (warm lemon) & Cobalt Blue Deep PB73 Winsor & Newton
3. Hansa (Transparent) Yellow PY97 & Winsor Blue red shade PB15
4. Hansa or Winsor Yellow Deep PY65 & Winsor or Phthalo Blue gs (cyan) PB15:3
5. Red-Orange such as Perinone Orange PO43 & Greenish Cyan- Winsor/Phthalo Blue PB15:3+ Winsor/Phthalo Green bs PG7
6. Scarlet Lake PR188 or Organic Vermilion PR188 & Turquoise Phthalos PB15:3 + PG7
7. Pyrrol Red PR254 Or Quinacridone Red PR209 & Turquoise blue green PB15:3(less) + PG7
8. Quinacridone Rose or Permanent Rose PV19r & Winsor/Phthalo Green bs PG7
9. Quinacridone Magenta PR122 (Winsor & Newton) & Winsor/Phthalo Green ys PG36
10. Quinacridone Violet PV19b or Permanent Violet PR88 & Permanent Green Light PY3 +PG7
11. Cobalt Violet (light) PV49 or PV14 & Permanent Green (more of) PY3 +PG7
12. Cobalt Violet Deep PV14 (Daniel Smith Inc.) & Yellow- green (more) PY3 + (less)PG7
13. Winsor/Carbazole Violet (Dioxazine) PV23 & Yellow yellow green (more) PY3 +)PG7
14. Ultramarine violet blue PV15+PB29rs & Green Gold PY129
Here is a copy of the color chart. The proportions show the approximate amount of each color it would take to make the requisite colorless gray if spun on a disc or painted as dots as in Pointillism. Only color pairs that are visual complements will make light gray if blended in this way indicating that if painted contiguously each will appear more vivid and colorful to the viewer.
          The mistake in not distinguishing between the colors of MIXING and VISUAL complementary color pairs dates from the start of the nineteenth century. Color-contrast was already an established principle and the term "complement" was first used for so called color harmony and afterimages. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the prolific German author, stated in his "Theory of Colours" (1810) that for "completeness" the eye produces a "complemental hue upon each color". This is not the same meaning as understood by a "complement" in today's art. (The after image effect to which he refers relates to a phenomenon known as successive contrast). Goethe also asserted that a mixture of all colors made gray. He designed a triangle of three "complemental" pairs using the same color arrangement as Moses Harris who created the first artists' color wheel in 1776 designed specifically as an aid to color mixing. Harris mixed three "secondary" colors- green/violet/orange/- from the primary colors red/yellow/blue/ and placed them oppositeone another, with BLACK in the center. Referring to both of these charts, many artists then used the same opposite colors both for color enhancement and also for color mixing, thus erroneously combining the colors of MIXING and VISUAL complements for the two separate functions.
          The confusion was sustained by Michel-Eugene Chevreul , a French chemist and color theorist who, unlike Goethe, did indeed understand the difference between subtractive and optical/additive color. In his book "The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their Application to the Arts"(1839) he offered a wheel showing complementary pairs and specifically stated that this was for color modification "upon the eye", and not for paint mixing. However, since he used the same colors pairs as Goethe, he continued the error. For instance, he used red/green instead of red/ turquoise, blue/orange instead of cyan/orange, and yellow/violet instead of yellow/blue for color enhancement. These color combinations were then erroneously used by many of the French Impressionist painters as well as fashion, garden and interior designers of that period and to this day.
          Ogden Rood in "Modern Chromatics" (1879) named the correct "visual" complementary contrast colors- pairs that he called "companions" that when juxtaposed glowed "with more than their natural brilliancy". Unfortunately, he failed to articulate that there was a difference between "visual" and "mixing" complements. And so the confusion continued- until today when I hope this article has sorted out the mess for you! Let me know!          You might be interested in my video on Visual Complements . Also in my three art books published by Watson-Guptill publications. My books are "Color Right from the Start", "Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints" and "Watercolor Right from the Start". Signed copies are available from this site. See the orderform.
          Here is a demonstration from start to finish in which I have used a visual complementary pair of colors- yellow and blue for color enhancement: I juxtaposed the yellow lemons with their visual complement, blue, to make the lemons appear especially brilliant.
          This Lemons on Blue study is easy for you to duplicate at home or in your studio. All you need are a dozen or so fresh lemons, a couple of blue cloths, possibly a lemon squeezer and a knife, and hey presto! You can paint along!
I used a quarter sheet (11X15") Arches 140Ib cold pressed paper and the following Daniel Smith paints: Hansa Yellow Light (PY3)
Hansa Yellow (PY97)
Cobalt Blue (PB28)
Ultramarine Blue GS (PB29)
French Ultramarine RS (PB29)
Quinacridone Rose PV19r
          After carefully arranging my lemons and cloths by a north facing window I made a credit-card sized value sketch by squinting to help me see the value. I then did a line drawing to scale on sketch paper which I subsequently transferred to my watercolor paper using a light table. I don't like to photograph and trace off a drawing since this does not allow for creativity and improvisation, and anyway it's too boring!
          I next squeezed out blobs of paints in three separate palettes for my blues, yellows, and grays. I mixed the grays from Cobalt Blue, Quinacridone Rose and Hansa yellow light. I put about a teaspoonful of water in each palette. To complete by preparations, near where I was working, I placed an absorbent cotton towel on a board that was a little larger than my watercolor paper. You'll see why soon!
Stage 1
          I thoroughly wet my watercolor paper on the front and back surface and then placed it on a slick, plexiglass board which was a little larger than my paper size. I re-wet the edges. I had to work rapidly to complete the stage before the shine left the paper surface.
          I dropped in the shadows and blue stripes on the top left hand cloth; then I laid in the blue underpainting on the glass lemon squeezer and the solid blue cloth as shown. Making sure the paper still had a shine I laid in the lemons' form shadows and cast shadows using a purplish gray mixed from Cobalt blue, Quinacridone Rose and a touch of Hansa yellow light.
          Once completed I quickly transferred the wet paper to the cotton towel placed on a flat surface to avoid backrun watermarks round the edges.
          If the shine had left the surface before I completed the shadows, I would have had to thoroughly dry the paper to set the paint and then re-wet it to prevent watermarks from forming. I could also use this procedure to re-state values. It is important to have the values correct at the preliminary stage so the second stage is a synch!
Stage #1
Stage 2
          On completely dry paper, using a bamboo pen, I drew several dots of masking fluid on the blue paint on lemon squeezer..
          Before painting the lemon yellow on each lemon I put a blob of clear water for the high light.
          I re-wet the solid blue cloth in sections and dropped on the first wash of blue paint. Occasionally I lifted out paint with a damp sable brush. I left the lemon next to the knife unpainted to show you the sequence.
Stage #2
Stage 3
          Studying my set up carefully, I worked in small areas as shown. If I wanted a soft edge I made sure the paint was surrounded by clear water that it could merge in to. If I wanted a hard edge I painted on dry paper. Sometimes I turned my painting upside down to gauge the underlying shapes. Finally I added the dark accents and details.
Stage #3
          I hope you have enjoyed this step by step study for visual complements. There are many more such demonstrations in my books "Watercolor Right from the Start" and "Color Right from the Start" and as here, each one illustrates a different aspect of watercolor painting or color theory. "Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints" then identifies the very best paints now available to you for your own painting endeavors!