Complementary Colors – Everything You Need To Know

It’s important to understand complimentary colors and how it relates to art and the world around us.

To be a great artist having a complete understanding of how color works is key, and we’ve got answers!

complimentary color wheel and light

What Are Complimentary Colors?

Hi everyone, so glad you’re joining me! We are going to learn about complementary colors through the use of a simple gel filter sheet over a light, to see what it teaches us about those complements. First of all, what are complementary colors?

Color wheel with complimentary colors

Well, they are the colors that are completely opposite each other on a color wheel. For example, as you can see in the image above, blue is opposite orange, green is opposite red, and yellow from violet. So when we see two colors across from each other, we know that they work together, or complement.

In addition, they can cancel out each others intensity. When you mix the opposite colors together, they begin to grey each other down. That’s a good way of toning down color. Let’s look at the light test and see what it reveals to us about complementary colors.

Experimenting with Light and Colored Gel Sheets

Red gel sheet to show color shadows

We are going to use light and put a gel filter sheet in front of it to see what happens in the shadows. This will teach us a little about the color opposites. Using this red tone gel (in double thickness to make it easier to see) in front of a light shows us something interesting:

Red gel sheet and a color wheel with complimentary colors

Let’s look at this up against the color wheel with the red gel underneath. The bottom right hand side is the full color, and the top right hand side is where I pale it down to be as close to the light demonstration as possible. So what are we seeing here? The shadow appears greenish because of the reddish light, which is a natural opposite as we see it on the color wheel. When you look at reds on the wheel, the colors across from them are greenish tones; likewise, light takes on that natural complementary response.

Now we are going to use this yellow gel:

Objects set up to cast a shadow with yellow colored gel sheet

I’ll put it in front of the light. What color does the shadow become? Once again, we have the gel under the color wheel at bottom right in its natural color, and I pale it down on the top right, to match as closely as possible to the light demonstration on the left.

Yellow gel sheet shadows with color wheel

Notice that the shadow appears to be a violet color, which is a natural opposite of the yellow. Amazing!

How about a reddish-purplish gel?

Objects arranged to cast a shadow

Let’s put it in front of the light:

Purple-red gel sheet casts a yellow-green shadow

As before, I have my color wheel over the reddish violet gel on the bottom right, which is full natural color. The top right is as close to the light as possible. Now look at the shadow: it has that yellow-green look to it, exactly the opposite as we see on the color wheel.

Principle Revealed in Nature

Now that’s a fascinating phenomena – and it’s in nature all around us! However, we don’t always think about it.

The sky:

The flowers:

The insects:

Certain animals:

This principle of light and color is everywhere! Therefore, if nature calls for it, then our paintings call for it as well. We can apply that to our artwork. We can learn from it. Let’s emphasize it and become more conscientious as we make designs, colors, and moods.

My painting “Sunset Falls” utilizes complementary colors in the glow reflected from the sky to the shadows on the falls. Buy this print or browse more paintings in the Shop. If you find this interesting, please subscribe for more. Hope to see you next time!

waterfall painting at sunset

NEXT | Learn how to add visual interest with touches of color in my post here.