Skip to content
Home » Challenge #4 Playing with Complements

Challenge #4 Playing with Complements

In the previous challenge, I suggested that you begin your exploration of the world of colors by limiting yourself to a few, thus restricting your palette.

But which colors should you start with? A choice of visual color complements may be a good idea: the effect of their combination is pleasant because the pair offers a certain comfort to the eye. To learn more about these perceptual aspects, read the article devoted to color complements in the category “Learning to see“.

The article concludes that it is sufficient to know the hue complements (i.e. the “families” of complementary colors). To simplify, we can summarize the complementary hue pairs as follows: yellow/night blue, red/cyan, magenta/green. Intermediate hues can be added: orange/blue and violet/green-yellow. The figure below shows them at their maximum color intensity (saturation).

Pairs of complements at their maximum saturation

The challenge is to put this knowledge into practice using the GORC method that you become familiar with: Get inspired-Observe-Reproduce-Create.

Getting inspired

Artists have an intuition of colors that harmonize; the association of visual complements comes naturally to them.

Intuition? Sometimes it’s all about knowledge. The teacher initiates the pupil in his studio; a renowned artist writes a book for his contemporaries or bequeaths his diary to the following generations; a scientific popularizes the current knowledge of visual perception.

The history of art is full of these transmissions of knowledge. Whether it is the writings of Leonardo da Vinci, the journal of Eugène Delacroixl or Charles Blanc‘s lectures popularising the scientific works of Chevreul and Ogden Rood, all have influenced the palette and technique of the artists who have read or listened to them.

The evidence of the happy association of color complements is not new; there are many examples, it is easy to find sources of inspiration, it is more difficult to make a choice.


This painting “Noon, rest from work” by Vincent Van Gogh invites us to a festival of golden yellows and oranges associated with blues. A few neutral tones, sometimes yellowish greys or blue greys balance the whole. Other hues are present, but very discreet: the slightly pinkish face and some yellow-green grass in the foreground.

Van Gogh’s, “Noon, rest from work”. Orange-Yellow/Blue happy association.

This “orange yellow-blue” or “yellow-blue” combination is probably the most familiar association of complementary colors, and dear to Van Gogh. Indeed, he used it in several paintings made in the south of France.

As for the “red/cyan” pair, it demonstrates its effectiveness in this gouache by contemporary artist Judith Simonian, where it guides our gaze back and forth from the inside to the outside of the room. The whole is immersed in a relatively neutral dark grey. And so that we don’t get bored, the artist has put a discreet green cup and colored sweets on the small table; using a limited palette, yes, but no fundamentalism!

Judith Simonian, “A single room”. This gouache illustrates the complement pair red/cyan (courtesy of the artist)


Olafur Eliasson has the gift of plunging us into the heart of light and its mysteries. In the following installation a white light is projected onto a filtering glass disc suspended from the ceiling, which rotates slowly. Part of this light passes through the disc and is projected onto the back wall, producing a blue ellipse. The other part of the light is reflected by the same filter: it projects on the perpendicular wall a light complementary to the blue, producing a yellow ellipse.

Olafur Eliasson, “Blue versus Yellow” installation demonstrating the complementarity of the two colors. Brändström & Stene, Stockholm, 2004, Photo: Carl Henrik Tillbergs.


In Sarah Moon’s dreamlike images, we often find almost complementary pairs of colors. Below the orange/blue green and red-cyan combinations are particularly interesting. The orange is extracted from the fish. Adding any of the blue-green displayed in the rectangle above would produce a neutral color. On the right image, the blue green is extracted from the background. If one adds any shade of red displayed below, again a neutral color would be obtained.

Sarah Moon, left: “Butterfly”; right: “For Giorgio Armani”, middle: complements of the orange of the fish and on the cyan of the right background (Photography)


The yellow-blue combination in this portrait of Dorothea by Loretta Lux creates a childlike atmosphere disturbed by the seriousness and strangeness of the girl’s gaze. The blue she wears, almost identical to the blue of the sky, tends to dissociate the head from the rest of the body, placing it “in the clouds”.

Yellow-Blue complementarity in Dorothea ( © Loretta Lux 2001)


Today’s cinematographers have a perfect command of color management. The photo below is taken from “Skyfall”, a visually stunning James Bond movie, and color processing has a lot to do with it. This scene in particular exploits the yellow/blue complements.

Extract from “Skyfall” exploiting the yellow/blue complementarity.

Unfortunately, as this association appeals to everyone, some filmmakers use it to excess. In this James Bond film, it is only used in this scene, in other feature films, we are bathed in this yellow/blue combination throughout the film, which can be boring.

Satellite imagery

In order to better interpret the information captured by the satellites, “false colors” are used; it is therefore logical to find complementary pairs in their palette: they offer better contrast and make it possible to better identify the structures on the ground.

With the right framing, you can see splendid abstract paintings in front of your eyes.

Detail of a “false color” satellite image (NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team)

Decorative arts

The mosaic imposes a limited choice of colors. When one of them is married to a beautiful yellow stone like the Mus ée des Beaux Arts de Gand(MSK), the pair of “yellow-blue” complements produces its own charming and slightly old-fashioned effect.

Yellow/blue, wall and mosaic at the MSK in Ghent (photos V. Lacroix)


The green/purple complementarity does exist in nature: lavender, wisteria, lilac, peonies, anemones, verbena, bellflowers,… all its flowers, combined with their leaves, offer us beautiful examples of complementarity.

Green/purple complements in a bouquet and in berries on a table (photo V. Lacroix)


Don’t be discouraged by this section, if you find it too abstract or theoretical, go directly to the next phase of the SORC method, namely “Reproduce”. In order to observe these images in greater detail, I suggest you install the application Colorotate. It extracts the colors from a digital image and allows you to visualize their complimentary relationships .

Colorotate is an project to learn how colors work and how to work with color quickly and efficiently.

Noon, rest from work” in Colorotate

The video below shows in this application the palette of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “Midi, repos du travail”, an inspiring example for the pair of complementary “yellow/blue”.

Visualization in the COLOROTATE application of the palette of Van Gogh’s painting “Noon, rest from work”.

In this video you can see Van Gogh’s painting and on the right two colors that make up his harmony in yellow and blue. What do you see next in the animation? A distribution of dots within a volume. The dots represent all the colors of the painting. Realize how, seen from above, all the dots are aligned and pass through the centre. This shows that the colors are complementary.

“A single room” in Colorotate

In the middle, two complementary colors identified in “A single room”; on the right, these two colors in the chromatic disc as well as all the colors of the gouache.

Once again, the application shows the alignment of all the colors, spread out on the red/cyan axis.

By using the application you will be able to see for yourself the coherence of the palettes around this same red/cyan association for both the Sarah Moon photo and the satellite image.

“Dorothea” in Colorotate

In the middle, two complements identified in the photo “Dorothea”; on the right, these two complements visualised in Colorotate’s chromatic disc.

Even though the color distribution in this picture is more complex, an important set joins the two identified colors caracterizing the harmony of the picture; the line joining the two colors passes through the center. The cloud formed by the set of colors is a little more spread out than in the previous examples.

“James Bond” in Colorotate

In comparison, you can see a rather similar complements pair in the Skyfall scene: a couple more orange-blue than yellow-blue but with colors that are both darker and more saturated.

In the middle, two complements identified in a scene from “SkyFall”; on the right, these two complements visualised in Colorotate’s chromatic disc.

The bouquet in Colorotate

In the application you can discover in the same way the complementarity of the colors present in the palette of the image of the bouquet.

In the middle, two complementary colors identified in the bouquet; on the right, the same two colors and all the colors of the bouquet in the Colorotate color wheel.


Emile Nolde, a great colorist, has created many watercolors where one can find pairs of complementary colors. I was inspired by one of them to explore the complements yellow/blue.

Complementarity Yellow/Blue, according to E. Nolde (V. Lacroix)


Below are some photo essays exploiting the different complements: yellow/blue and red/cyan.

Yellow/Blue complements (photo Vinciane Lacroix CC-BY-SA 2.5)
Red/cyan complements in the chairs (photo Vinciane Lacroix CC-BY-SA 2.5)

Go ahead

Now it’s up to you! Combine the pairs of complements in your interior, in your clothes or creations. Share them and don’t hesitate to comment on this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *