View Full Version : Class: Learn Values via Complements - UPDATED

Deborah Secor
02-07-2008, 07:49 PM
I taught a class today devoted to painting in complementary colors. I've discussed this here before and even shown some work a long time ago (I think), but I thought I'd take my camera and shoot some process shots so you all can see how it goes. It's a challenging exercise and lots of fun. I often hear how instructive it is, if a bit frustrating! So, here is what I instructed my students to do:

Underpaint with Complements

This experiment will help you understand complements, as well as increasing your use of various colors of the same value. This is a great exercise—challenging and fun. Whether you’ve tried it before or not, it will still stretch your brain, trust me! Here’s what you need:

An excellent photo that shows a good range of values. Any subject you want to paint is acceptable, as long as there’s a good scale of values apparent in it. I suggest finding one that has a lot of color, as well.
An excellent grayscale copy of that same photo. Your computer will do a good job if you take the pic into a program and change it to grayscale (in PS use the enhance button, then adjust color, then remove color.) Or take it to a copy shop and ask them to make a good grayscale version (often done on a color printer with the color turned off.)
A color wheel.
A virgin sheet of Wallis paper.
Clean pastels, which makes it much, much easier to find the values of colors. Okay, this one is OPTIONAL!

What we’ll do is make a painting that reverses the colors but retains the same values of those colors, so if you paint a landscape you’ll paint the light blue sky light orange, the dark green tree dark red, etc. We won’t be painting the ‘real’ colors on top, just the complements. It sounds so easy...in theory.

Here's the photo I chose. It's not a very good quality pic, sorry!

Step one: Toning paper


Tone a virgin sheet of white Wallis paper with a very, very pale gray, so that you'll be able to erase your charcoal marks quickly and completely. This will allow you to change the values easily, which is important. [I use a foam house painting brush to vigorously scrub a light layer of pale gray down into the paper and then brush it off thoroughly.]

Step two: Underdrawing in soft charcoal


I suggest you use the grayscale photograph to draw this because the less time you look at the real colors the less inclined you are to paint them when the time comes. Take some time to find the values and record them as well as you can, without becoming compulsive. This drawing took me about 40 minutes to do. The white has been erased out with a soft white plastic (Mars) eraser.

Step three: Paint using complements


I start with the sky because I always start with it! To find the right color I use a color wheel. Looking at the color photograph I hold the color wheel up to it and find the blue of the sky, turn the color wheel over and hold my finger on the orange so I don't get confused. Then I find the correct value (which should already be in place on the paper, for the most part) and select a pastel. Here I have the first layer of sky color in place.

*Note: White is a value not a color, so anything that is truly white is left that value. Ive used some yellow (for lavender), and peach (for blue) in my clouds on the shadow side.

Step four: Layer complementary colors


Just as I would when painting a blue sky, I begin with a color slightly darker than I want to end up with, and then I add two layers of other colors. Normally in painting a blue sky I would layer a cobalt blue, a turquoise blue and a paler layer of one or the other, so instead I choose to use red-orange and orange, as well as a pale orange.


Here is one layer of color all over the paper. The original photo has a lot of complicated green and magenta in the foreground! I didn't spend a lot of time doing the layers because of time constraints to the class, but went on painting the upper half to show the class how to take things a little farther.

A close-up of the 'yellow', now lavender, flowers.


Step five: Paint!


Here's a close-up of the top half of the painting. I put away the color photo after one layer of complementary color is in place and use the grayscale one to continue painting. Once there's red where the green is and purple in place of yellow, you can simply begin to paint. Here the red mesa turns various greens and the trees become dark reds. The gree of the grass is pink and the sky is peach!

One thing to keep in mind is that as you paint a landscape it will look like an alien world. Our brains are wired to see distant colors as bluer, but when they're oranger it rebels and won't perceive the aerial perspective. So don't worry that there's no sense of space.
This is as far as I've gotten on this painting but I think it gets you there enough to explain what works and why. At the end you'll see how it encourages you to see VALUE, not just color!

Any questions? Let me know...

Hope you enjoy!


Gail V
02-07-2008, 07:59 PM
Great idea!! I'm thinking about following along..... :0)

Deborah Secor
02-07-2008, 08:37 PM
Great, Gail... If you try it, show your painting here, will you?


Tracy Lang
02-07-2008, 08:48 PM
Thanks for this Deborah! Great exercise and I can't wait to try it. Maybe tomorrow...I have the day off :)


02-07-2008, 10:19 PM
OOh Deborah I remember you talking about this! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this exercise. I'll be following along intently!


02-07-2008, 10:29 PM
looking forward to seeing how this turns out! :: pulls out the chair and popcorn!:::

Deborah Secor
02-07-2008, 10:51 PM
Go for it, Tracy! :D

Happy to show it, Mandy. Stay tuned...

Me too, Joni!


02-08-2008, 01:12 AM
count me in as interested !! ... *pulls up chair*

02-08-2008, 02:18 AM
Thanks so much for sharing. It's a great lesson. Wish I could paint landscapes.


Deborah Secor
02-08-2008, 01:34 PM
Join in, Violet!

Someone please pass the popcorn--oh, wait, I need to go paint, don't I?

02-08-2008, 02:24 PM
Oh wow, this is so interesting! paint the opposite? Sounds complicated, but at the same time intriqueing & I bet this is going to turn out beautiful.. me pulling up a chair too! Boy Deborah, What a blessing to have access to such valuable info.. Thanks once again for sharing your time & talent with us!

uh, did someone mention popcorn?

02-08-2008, 07:34 PM
I always like how you stretchhhhh us into working out of our zone of comfort. I keep saying I'm going to do this exercise and never do. But I like watching you work LOL.

Great - I'll give it a try next time I'm stuck. Barb

02-08-2008, 07:35 PM


Donna A
02-09-2008, 03:55 AM
Sounds fun and fascinating, Deborah! I'm grabbing my chair. Where's the popcorn! :-) Donna ;-}

Deborah Secor
02-09-2008, 10:09 AM
I noodled on it yesterday but no photo yet. I'll see if I can get it further along for you to see soon!

Barb, let's not get too carried away here. No one calls me a master! :lol: 'sjust me... However, anyone is welcome to print this out and try it, use it, whatever!


Deborah Secor
02-27-2008, 02:52 PM
Well, I didn't get back to this until today but thought I'd post a shot of it for you to see finished.

http://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/27-Feb-2008/23609-DSCN7760.JPGnext to the originalhttp://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/27-Feb-2008/23609-comp_2.jpg

I put them side by side to show you the complementary colors. Of course, you can see the painting isn't a slavish copy of the original, from either a compositional or color standpoint. I really do like to go into the painting after I have one quick layer of complements in place and just paint, asking myself questions like, "If I was painting the sky what colors would I use here?" and then swap them out. After a while it becomes its own painting!

I'd like to do a 'real' color layer over this to show you how it looks. You can either fix it, spraying with fixative, alcohol, or even water if careful not to let it drip, and then cover it with the natural colors when it's dry, OR you can just go right back into it with the next layer and match the values exactly. The advantage of this is that in some places it's much more painterly not to have the undercolor fixed in place--but it's not a huge difference.

I sometimes challenge my students to do it without fixing, in order to test them on seeing the correct values, but only if they aren't so invested in the painting as a finished piece. You can blow it!

I'll show any more progress I make...


Deborah Secor
02-27-2008, 05:03 PM
While I had this on the easel I thought I'd just go ahead and throw one layer of color on top of what was there. As you can see, I got carried away and virtually finished it.

I very much like what's happened at this point but will give it a while to evaluate things. I love what these complement underpaintings do--probably more accurately a first layer, since I didn't fix it at all.

Hope this has been instructive.:D

Kathryn Wilson
02-28-2008, 06:19 AM
Wow, Deborah, I am glad you posted the finished version - it's amazing the changes that occurred when you put that next layer on.

Donna T
02-28-2008, 08:40 AM
Thanks so much for sharing all those steps with us, Deborah. I admit, when I saw your painting with just the complements it was a little unsettling. But, Wow, did it ever turn out well. I think it takes a real creative mind to be able to see past the underpainting stage and imagine the final result. I've tried this and get so distracted by all the unusual colors ... I guess I'm not "there" yet. :lol: Do you find that when you don't fix the underpainting that the colors mix together too much and grey each other out? Are the finished paintings any noticeably more vibrant when the underpaintings are fixed and less mixing occurs? I'm just curious as to what you and your students discovered in this exercise.


Deborah Secor
02-28-2008, 05:41 PM
Thanks, Kat! I like it, too--it's always fun when a plan comes together... :D

Donna, unsettling is a good word for it. The complement painting is WRONG, that's all there is to it, yet it teaches so much about how to make things right. You learn to control color (complements), value (matching), and temperature (near and far), among other things... The unsettling colors beneath teach you not to be disturbed when something is going wrong, and instead of frantically trying to fix it to think through the solution and see it to the end. So often I find people just willy-nilly erase or layer and layer and layer colors in an effort to get it right, that they just make a mess. This exercise invites you to slow down and think things through and proceed logically, though very carefully, to the end. But it is HARD!

I liken it to training my horse, years ago. I could take him out on the trail and run him for a long time before he broke a sweat but when I brought him into the arena and taught him something new he broke a sweat in ten minutes! That mental effort is stressful, but worth going through in so many ways. However, you have to be ready to learn it, and an experienced guide helps.

I don't have a problem with colors mixing without fixing the underlayers myself because I'm fairly confident of my ability to put down the right values on top, but the finished painting is a bit more tonal in look. I like what happened when I layered the blues over the oranges in the sky and clouds. It made things subtle and unusual, but in a way more believable, too.
My students usually start by using fix so they can do a bit more fiddling. The fixed colors stay in place, even when you erase them, so you can recover color to a degree, plus you can use more broken color for neat effects. One drawback, though, is that if you already have a thick coating of pastel in place and then you fix it, the tooth of the Wallis becomes noticeably filled, limiting the number of new colors you can lay over that area, so it's a split decision in a lot of ways!


Donna T
02-28-2008, 07:10 PM
Thanks Deborah, I appreciate your thoughts on the subject. I will remember your horse the next time I try something new and get stressed ... and then get to the stage of frantic fixing. :rolleyes: Even if I'm not sure how to fix something I feel like I've made progress if I can at least recognize that something is wrong. That's half the battle! Thanks again.


03-01-2008, 01:18 AM
many thanks for the in-depth demonstration and explanation !! ... very interesting and informative !! ... :thumbsup: ..... must give it a try one day ....

03-01-2008, 10:19 AM
Many thanks for this instruction!

I have to admit that the first few pictures looked strange to me, but the final result is wonderful. The whole method seems unintuitive, but now each color has "depth", I really enjoy it.

03-02-2008, 11:55 AM
Thanks Deborah for this wonderful instruction.

Donna-Perfect wording for a complementary underpainting Unsettling!

I love doing this with my paintings, but often I get lost, what is green is to be red/red to green. With practice I feel I am getting the hang of it.

What really impresses me with this thread is the layers and layers of different colors you build up, then just a topping with the primary colors and voila, the painting absolutely sings! It's like making a cake, you take a bunch of ingredients, that don't taste well by themselves, mix them up, bake them up, and the cake just isn't right until you put on the icing!

Muchas gracias!:thumbsup:


03-02-2008, 02:13 PM
I don't get it. I'll re-read.
Nice painting.

Edit: hm. I think I get it. Learn values - why not work from a greyscale image - do you need this compl colour thing?
But then complimentary colours are always liberating to use. same as primary colours could teach a lot. And it sure is true that unexpected colours can make a painting sing. A hint of orange in the sky makes the sky sing! Even when you cannot see any orange in a real sky (or can you ;)).
Nice exercise.

Deborah Secor
03-02-2008, 04:51 PM
Carol, the funny thing is with practice I've found I can literally pick up the pale orange, call it blue, and use it in the sky... I do that while I'm demonstrating for my class so that they start to think opposities, and it really helps. Once I freed myself of the idea that I had to paint things the colors of nature I found that I could really begin to see the values much more clearly, but it sure takes practice. As to the layers, that Wallis paper can take it all as long as you don't use fix or any other solvents, which tend to liquefy the pigment and fill the grain. Love your cake analogy! :D

Sophie, the idea for me isn't that it has to be the exact complement as much as that it needs to be the correct value of whatever color you use. I just found that in my classes challenging people to use the opposite color kept them from making the sky blue again... but really these could be any colors. Oh, and thanks--glad you think it's a nice painting. :)


03-03-2008, 01:44 AM
Thanks for wonderful instruction. I do this some times in areas, but have never done a whole work, and I have such trouble with values! this should help a lot.