View Full Version : Underpainting of Complementary Colors

10-25-2007, 05:45 PM
I was trying the method used by Deborah Secor in, Painting with Pastels, and all I made was mud. :mad: I am using AS ColourFix paper, Sennelier, Rembrandt and Terry Ludwig pastels.

Are you supposed to blend the underpainting into the paper? I didn't. Am I using too heavy of a hand? Could be. :evil: When I look at the underpainting in the book, it looks like there is lots of pastel in the underpainting, but I can't tell if it has been rubbed into the paper or not.

I am in the middle of doing a book report on this book for Drawing and Sketching 101 and I have to do an exercise from the book and this one looked very interesting. Deborah's beautiful painting looks like there is plenty of pastel over top of the underpainting. I know I can't do a painting anything close to what she can, but I would like to know the proper way of doing it. Hopefully Deborah will read this. Anyone else out there have any ideas?



Deborah Secor
10-25-2007, 06:27 PM
Let me see if I can help you out, Doug. I think there's a link I can give you showing how to do this!


Deborah Secor
10-25-2007, 06:47 PM
I can't find a thread, but here's a copy of an article about this:

One way to come to understand the interdependence of color and value is to plan a painting that utilizes only complementary colors but retains the original value of each of those colors. In doing this you will come to see the value or tone of the color more exactly as you challenge yourself to duplicate it while using its complement. Spend some time looking at a painting you have recently completed. Select one of the colors you used and name its complement. In your mind begin to paint using only the complements. If the sky is blue, it becomes orange. The green tree is now red, the yellow grasses are purple, the white clouds are, surprisingly, white. Why? Because the complement of white is not black. White is a value, in this case, not a color. If you have retained the correct values of the colors in your mental painting, they have not shifted except in color. If the clouds are not really white, but are a very light pink with touches of pale purple and blue, they become very light green with touches of pale yellow and orange. If they are white, they stay white. This exercise will help you begin to think of value and color independently, but will also help increase your awareness of the multiple colors you can use in any value range. It will aid you in learning how to layer or lay side-by-side different colors of the same or similar value in any one tonal area.

In doing this painting it is best to have two photographs to work from, the original color photo and an excellent black and white (grayscale) copy of it, that accurately shows a range of dark to light values. The photograph is helpful for this because you are freed from making compositional decisions and are also able to study the colors separately from their values. This is strictly an experiment in value and color. Using the black and white photograph, do an underdrawing or value study of the image using black, white and grays. (I use charcoal to do this, working on lightly toned Wallis paper.) Take some time to accurately render the tones there. This can become an elegant rendition of the scene that develops your sense of colors as values. As you draw, you are able to see the color of the object you are depicting in your mind’s eye, which helps you identify its value.

Now, looking at the color photograph and using a color wheel, select and lay down the opposite color of the natural one. Be very careful to select the correct value, whether a light, medium or dark tone. It is very helpful to use a color wheel to find these complements at first. Find the blue of the sky and lay your finger on the orange as you seek out the right shade, in order not to become confused. Once you have placed a single layer of the complementary colors in the proper values all over your paper, put the color photograph out of your sight. If you are looking at a photograph of a blue sky it is very difficult to discipline yourself to pick up orange, but if you have already chosen the new colors and briefly recorded them in place, it is easy to look at the black and white copy to paint. You want to forget the colors in nature now, and begin to expand your painting using the correct values and opposite colors on the color wheel. Think of the purple mountains as yellow. You already have a layer of yellow in place so you no longer need to think about that. What color is a dark yellow? Most yellows tend to shift to a muddy brownish-green as they darken, so choose a dark gold or yellow-green instead. Make it dark enough, sacrificing the exact complement to the correct value if necessary. The important thing here is to get the appropriate darkness or lightness of the color while not relying on the ‘real’ color to find it. When you lean on the colors of the natural world, you are once again dismissing value.

Spend some time on this complement painting. It will almost certainly look like some unfamiliar place or thing, with all the colors shifted out of the world we see. Relax and have fun in this alien place. A glowing pale orange sky, billowing white clouds with yellow shadows, dark reddish-orange hillsides, purplish-red grasses or red and orange trees with pink highlights can encourage you to play with color in ways you might rarely have done. Allow this new reality to inspire you. A pale pink and yellow rose becomes strange as it shifts to pale green and purple; the natural flesh tones of pinkish skin become green while darker shades of flesh shift from red to green or blue to orange; green cat eyes become red, brown fur turns greenish. Think of the ways you flavor color when painting the natural world and apply that way of thinking to this complement painting. Analyze how it is that you vary colors. Do you consistently rely on a certain shade of blue to flavor a shadow? What version of orange color does it become now? Is there a way you might use that new orange color, rather than consistently using the same blue, in a future piece? What might happen if you begin to layer it over or put it down next to the favored blue? If it grays the blue too much for your taste, how might you shift it slightly one direction or the other on the color wheel to aid the blue, making it more varied and beautiful, more lyrical and visually stimulating? Go ahead and playfully experiment with color this way. A series of paintings could be very instructive, freeing you to have fun with color in a way you might not have tried before.

Once you have completed your new complement painting, spend some time analyzing what happened. Ask yourself if this has challenged you more than you thought it would. Most of us have become dependent on a palette of colors that we routinely use, which in itself is not a problem unless it has become overly dull and boring. However, this experiment might suggest some new alternatives or additions to you. At this point you might have a painting that is worth keeping as it is. Often the new colors are intriguing and inspiring. If so, set it aside and try another one using a different photograph. However, if you are painting the landscape you must keep in mind that you have a filter for the color blue that is built into your brain. You know that the bluer and paler a color is, the farther away it is, but when you switch to the complementary colors you create an orange filter. Your brain is not able to process orange as a distant color, so landscapes often seem to lack any sense of air or space. This can be a dissatisfying effect. The solution might be to paint the colors of nature directly on top of your complement painting. You could certainly do the same thing with subjects other than landscapes, as well.

You might choose to spray a layer of workable fixative on your painting in order to give it more tooth, which will help hold another layer of pastel, but remember that fixative will slightly darken the colors. It is not necessary to fix your work if the paper you are using is adequate to the task, such as Wallis paper. After all, if you are going to match the values using the colors of nature, you should be able to carefully lay them down directly atop the complement and arrive at a color that is only slightly grayed or dulled. Finger blending is not recommended, as it tends to result in colors that are somewhat dreary and grayed, unless that is your aim.

Now is the time to return to your original color photograph so that you can add the colors of reality. Remember, however, that the photograph is not a goal, but an aid to you. Use it to recall the colors you saw when you recorded the scene, then let this new color take the painting into places the photograph cannot go. As you put down the latest colors beside or on top of the original ones, notice how they optically jump, dazzling your eye. This is the power of complements. When a bit of red shines beneath the green, it adds some sparkle and pizzazz. Orange under blue gives some zing. Purple below yellow makes it snap a little. This is the essence of optically blended color. The artist must choose the degree to which this is successful and pleasing, but should not completely disregard the potential of such color use. Experiment with this idea, adding colors of the same or similar values to your paintings. Think about how using broken color might make your paintings stronger, so that instead of falling back on the color habits you have developed you become somewhat more adventurous. Take a chance with color and see where it takes you.

You might choose to leave a portion of the complement painting untouched, while covering a part with the natural colors, so that you are able to see what decisions you have made and what has worked or failed there. Divide your painting somewhere that logically leaves some of the underpainting showing so that you can see both lower and upper layers. Now make a painting the usual way, using the same photograph, without first layering the complementary colors. Notice the color choices you make, and analyze if the experiment has changed the way you think about and approach color.

Painting color with value in mind is not a new idea. Most artists seem to intuitively come to understand value as they progress through their art careers. However, using this series of exercises can help show you some new ideas about the use of color and challenge you to attempt new combinations that can be visually exciting. Be sure to put your experimental paintings alongside one another and compare the results. Include the one that shows the complements below and the colors of nature directly on top, as well as paintings you did in the usual fashion before these experiments and subsequent to them. You may see that you have come to understand the values of the colors a bit more thoroughly, and you might also have found a way to utilize new colors of the same or similar values, but shifted toward the complements, to enliven your color.

(C) Deborah Christensen Secor
originally published in The Pastel Journal

Don't use a lot of thick pastel for your complementary painting underpainting, since your Art Spectrum doesn't have enough tooth to hold a lot of layers. Don't blend or smudge the underpainting, just use a light layer of the complement. Match the values as closely as you can. To do this take a clean white piece of paper and lay down a swatch of the color you want to match--let's say the light orange of the sky. Then test several pale blues by putting them down so they touch the edge of the orange spot. When the blue and orange literally become one shape, with no line between the two colors (squint--it helps), you know it's about the same value. If you can see the line between the two colors they aren't close enough.

I hope this helps! If I can find illustrations I'll post them, too, but for now this will have to do...


10-25-2007, 07:25 PM
Wow! Thanks Deborah. I think I was using too much pastel in the underpainting. In the book, you used La Carte paper and it looks like you applied lots of pastel, so I figured the AS colourfix would hold the same amount. I guess I'm wrong. I will try it again, using less pastel for the underpainting.

The article is very informative and I will make sure I find the right values. This looks like a great method. Your painting, Chamisa Garden, just pops of the page using this method. I am sure others will be helped as well.

Thank you,


PS: It's great being able to go right to the source. We are spoiled.:D

Deborah Secor
10-25-2007, 07:54 PM
Happy to help you out. I did that one on La Carte, which probably makes it look richer in color. The softness of the paper does it. Spectrum just doesn't have as much tooth, although there's plenty for your purposes. Just take it easy.

One thing to remember is that the color you end up with will have an interesting combination of 'jazzy' undercolor, up close, while at a distance all the values optically blend, resulting in a far more tonal looking painting. It makes for fun viewing--up close it looks one way and far away another...

Hope you'll share your painting with us.... :D


10-29-2007, 06:26 PM
Doug, thank you for asking a really good question and Deborah, thank you for such a great, in depth answer. I think that this is an exercise that I am going to try. :)

11-01-2007, 07:17 AM
I'm glad I happened upon this thread the other day, thanks Doug. Deborah, I printed out your post and had time tonight to give it a good read. It's just what I've been trying to get my head around and you explained it so clearly. I am going to have to try this exercise as well.

I am also hoping that this will be a good excercise to teach me not to blend all the time.

Deborah Secor
11-01-2007, 05:28 PM
Great, Pam. Hope it helps out. It's a fun exercise. You really have to think value as you look at a color. :D


11-01-2007, 11:35 PM
This is a great thread.

I have a problem when laying in complementary colors in an underpainting I get sort of lost. It gets me almost ??? dizzy??? Then when I come back to an area I doubt myself and think I placed the wrong shape in the wrong place. "That area should be rock, no...it's part of the grass." This especially happens when painting en plein air.

Deborah you posted this thread and it is a great example for underpainting. I guess I need more practice so I don't get so lost.:rolleyes:

I did a little search and found this other informative thread. Some great info. I like the last post #11. It makes sense.
quote=rr113]I can think of two reasons for doing an underpainting;

1. You do an underpainting so that some of it shows through. What I mean by that is that 1. either some of the underpainting is not overpainted, usually little specks of color. or 2. that light penetrates the top layer, hits the underpainting layer and is influenced by it (some absorbed) and is reflected back through the overpainting. (unlikely in most cases.)

This being the case, you are using the underpainting to have two colors side by side influence each other. That is called the phenomenon of "simultaneous contrast". If you Google it, you will get a lot of interesting information from which you can deduce various techniques. In short, the tonal quality, the chroma and intensity quality, and the temperature quality of a color are all changed by the colors around it. the most common effect is the intensity of a color is made more intense by having its complement around it. It "pops" out the color.

2. You do an underpainting because you paint from the back to the front of your subject matter. In the course of transforming a three dimension scene into a two dimensional picture, you can think of layers on the two dimensions that correspond to the third dimension on real life. For example, a tree is a globular form but on the support, you might first build up a dark form for the tree (somewhat circular). This is the underpainting. Then you layer over it the lights, and finally the hilites and/or the back lights. You do not try to paint the tree in one layer by, in one area, painting in the dark shadows and then next to it the light part. You paint over the dark not around it otherwise you will get a primitive or folk art effect.



11-01-2007, 11:54 PM
Thanks for the link Carol. I forgot about Deborah's WIP. I am still having problems but it's getting better. I'm waiting for my white Colourfix and Wallis to arrive so I can try a complementary water colour underpainting. It's fun to try new things.


Donna A
11-03-2007, 02:24 AM
The complimentery undercolor is such an exciting way of working! And I learned long ago (actually with a very particular classical technique in oils) that using any underpainting can take a bit of practice just to get a real feel for what the underpainting offers and how to make greatest USE of it for the final painting. I'm such a fan of experimenting. Deborah, you've given some wonderful guides in using the compliment!

I've attached a pdf "Which Color Should I Use? – a perennial pastel painters’ question" which talks about different colors we might choose for our under color, covering a lot of different types of subject matter including landscapes with different influences (such as the southwest and the green-green places like the midwest, etc.) These are a few comments from the pdf:

• Variations in pressure alters the look of any stroke of pastel! This is an important asset to experiment with and use!
• The compliment of your subject’s major color area can add “zing” plus important, sometimes difficult subtle color changes.
• Some artists consider White the most “sparkling” beginning for their paintings — or simply use as an underpainting base.
• Others choose Black as a striking foil for all hues in painting, using it exclusively — and as part of “their style.”
• Dark colors serve beautifully for those paintings with “subjects coming out from the shadows,” little by little, building layers that come forward into the light, not unlike some light/shadow effects in works of the Old Masters.
• Almost like a “silent partner” lighter- to darker-valued neutral colors work in the background as quiet contrast to the often richer colors of the painting. Soft Umber, Aubergine, Elephant and Rose Grey have been perennial favorites.
• Bold, high intensity colors add an exciting undercurrent to “rather mellow” subjects (including their surroundings.)
• For vibrant subjects, bold colors richly support and maintain the higher intensities for overall consistent excitement.
• A “major accent color” from the subject, used as the base color, can give a fascinating “tingling” energy throughout the painting — as long as it is allowed to “only peek through” modestly throughout the painting (and not dominate.)
• The best way to make colors GLOW is to surround them by very neutral colors. (Think of coals glowing in the fireplace!)
• Any subject anywhere will be creatively influenced by the chosen color — and every choice can be made to work!
• EXPERIMENT! perhaps try painting small versions of the same subject on two or more paper/primer colors to experience both the visual and working differences of each. Experiment with the pressure of each pastel stroke, too!
• Choose a color you would NEVER EVER consider using!!! Oh, the fun you could end up having!
• Check your Values! Painting on a medium to dark surface let’s any medium-light color stroked on seem much lighter than it actually is; medium to light surface let’s any medium-dark color seem much darker.

In this case, I addressed color effects in general, as well as the 20 Colourfix colors. With all the painting surfaces I've worked with over the decades (gee----I used to be able to say 'years') I fell in love with Cfix---although I never stop experimenting!

It's so great to live in a time when we have so many wonderful lightfast, archival choices among the different brands!!! Was not that way 20+ years ago!!! We are soooo fortunate!

Experiment! Enjoy! Donna ;-}

11-03-2007, 12:41 PM
Thank you for the info Donna. "What colour should I use?" is a question I ask myself all the time. I have been using Colourfix paper for the last few months and I usually buy the Rainbow packs for the variety of colours. This time, I ordered white so I could experiment with watercolour underpaintings as well as pastel and water, and, pastel and perps. I know you can do these thing on coloured paper, but I figured it would be easier to control the underpainting using white.

I painted some red apples and blue fabric using a watercolour underpainting of yellow for the apples and blue for the cloth. This made the apples pop. This made me want to try some more, but I didn't have any more white paper so of course I had to order more. While I was at it, I HAD to order some more pastels:D . I am expecting my Great Americans and paper any day now and I can't wait to do some more experimenting. There is no such thing as a failed experiment. You learn something even if it doesn't turn out the way you thought it would.

I am so greatful that artists like you and Deborha are more than willing to share your knowledge. I know there are lots of other people reading this that are being helped as well. As I told Deborha before, we are spoiled.:)

Thank you,


11-05-2007, 05:47 PM
I use a complementary underpainting often -- great technique, Deborah! -- and I agree that you need to take it easy when you lay down the later layers of pastel. Churning up those first, complementary layers with colour later will make mud, for sure. In fact, I like to "fix" my complementary underpainting before going in with local colour. Typically, I use either alcohol or Turpenoid (Regular, not Natural) to wash in the colour and stain the paper, and then I let it dry. This way, I never churn up the colour and never make mud.

11-05-2007, 07:02 PM
Thanks for the tip Michael. Doing an underpainting with pastel and Turpenoid is another method I want to try. I'm still waiting for my paper to arrive.

Michael, did the storm hit you at all? Those were strong winds and huge waves they were showing on the news. Hope everything is okay.


11-05-2007, 09:52 PM
In fact, I like to "fix" my complementary underpainting before going in with local colour. Typically, I use either alcohol or Turpenoid (Regular, not Natural) to wash in the colour and stain the paper, and then I let it dry. This way, I never churn up the colour and never make mud.

Thanks for the information Michael. When you mention "fix" is that in reference to setting the underpainting with Turpenoid/alcohal, or are you spraying fixative additionally? I would think the Turpenoid/alcohal treatment would cause the pastels to set into the paper, and the fixative wouldn't be necessary.

Thanks so much for your wonderful hints. I referenced your pdf, and your total site is marvelous. Tons of great help to me. I have a notebook of tips I find valuable from here and there,and the information you provide is prominent in my notebook.

Deborah- WOW- A new challange for me!

I find it difficult to match with a complementary value, my color wheel helps, but still, I feel iffy with my selection of "value" much of the time. I am getting to love the ugly stage of the painting!

I would love to see some underpaintings to help me absorb all this info!

I have rated and saved this thread to my favorites. Tremendous amount of valuable information!:D

Thanks all!!!


11-06-2007, 05:32 AM
When I write "fix," I mean to stabilize the pastel so it can't move. I accomplish this with the alcohol/Turpenoid wash. Alternatively, it could be done with a fixative.

You can see my demo on using a fixative to "fix" the complementary painting here:


I didn't use the alcohol/Turpenoid wash because the painting was done on Canson.

12-05-2007, 10:12 PM
Thanks Michael!!

This is a great demo! I am amazed what you can do on Canson even with the fixative.

Thanks for clarifying my question regarding fixing or stabilizing with the turp/alcohal.