By painting a picture with blue, red and yellow on your palette, you are keeping your options relatively open with regard to the overall colour, temperature or value of your finished painting. This is because when these three colours are evenly spaced on a colour wheel, the triad offers the ability to mix almost any colour you could wish for. But have you ever tried to paint a picture without one of the Primary colours on your palette? Or would you ever go a step further and paint a picture without any primary colours on your palette? Here are two examples of complementary palettes – that is, a palette comprising green, orange, and violet (and white) – along with a demonstration of why the colour mixing possibilities are just as exciting.
Orange, green, and violet are known as secondary or complementary colours – the mixes achieved with red and yellow, blue and red, and yellow and blue respectively. However, this is a colour theory observation and not an observation of pigments – it is possible to make single pigment complementary paints because orange, green and violet pigments exist. The good news about this is that your secondary colour palette needn’t be ‘secondary’ in colour vibrancy. If you wish to work with a palette of colours that possess maximum colour vibrancy it is advisable to look for paints made with just one pigment (orange pigments have a code of PO + a number, green pigments have a code of PG + a number and violet pigments have a code of PV + a number, and this information will appear on colour charts and paint tube labels).
The first palette I explored consisted of Phthalo Green, Orange/Red and Ultramarine Violet.
Phthalo Green has a cool blue undertone. From the tube it appears very dark, but when thinned with water it turns into a bottle-green hue. It is made from a single highly staining, synthetic pigment (more information can be found in this post). As with all phthalo pigments, it is very powerful and is very influential in mixes, so it is often advisable to use it in small quantities.
Orange/Red is a fiery orange that is no way near as highly staining as any Phthalo pigment, from the tube it is mid-tone and intensely vibrant, but when diluted washes away into a gentle pinkish hue.
PB29 PB15:3 PW6, Semi-Transparent
As the pigment codes indicate, this Ultramarine Violet is made from three pigments and is semi-transparent. From the tube it is as dark as Phthalo Green, and is only slightly less transparent. When watered down it bursts into a bright violet, and when more white is added takes on a slightly pink tint.
An explanation of the mixes
In the table, I mixed combinations of two colours out of the three in the palette, and also showed in the bottom right-hand corner of each square what happens to the mix when white is added.
- Phthalo Green becomes more earthy when a small amount of Orange/Red is added to it, and deeper and cooler when mixed with Ultramarine Violet.
- When a touch of Phthalo Green is added to Orange/Red the mix is much cooler than neat Orange/Red, and could be described as a green/brown.
- When a hint of Ultramarine Violet is added to Orange/Red it also becomes more brown, but a much redder brown, which could be described as rust coloured.
- When a touch of Phthalo Green is added to Ultramarine Violet, it almost appears indigo – a very deep blue-violet.
- When a touch of Orange/Red is added to Ultramarine Violet the mix becomes violet-brown.
The table alone only goes some way to showing what colours are possible with these four paints, so I then mixed a group of pale colours, a group of mid-tone colours and a group of dark colours.
Some of the mixes are repeated, but on the whole, I found this exercise so useful for unearthing the potential of this palette, one which I would never instinctively reach for myself. Having explored the possible mixes I feel more inclined to try painting with this palette. The real eye opener is the potential to mix a blue with Violet and Green! Additionally, there are some beautiful warm browns and earthy reds, while the Orange/Red mixes with white to create some beautiful pale peach hues. While the table demonstrated how synthetically bright this palette looks at first glance, further mixing shows its ability to offer naturalistic hues which would be useful for a painting of any subject matter, from seascapes, snowy landscapes, or portraiture.
The second palette I looked at was Oxide of Chromium, Cadmium Orange Genuine, and Ultramarine Violet
Oxide of Chromium is a very earthy, highly opaque, warm green. It can be a difficult colour to work with as alongside transparent colours it can appear quite lifeless and imposing. It certainly is a bit of a marmite colour!
Cadmium Orange Genuine is a powerful mid-tone orange. When mixed with white it becomes less pink than the Orange/Red and white mix, and much more peach.
PB29 PB15:3 PW6, Semi-Transparent
This is the same violet as used in the previous palette.
An explanation of the mixes
When mixing combinations of two of the three colours of this limited complementary palette, it’s immediately clear that is a much more naturalistic palette than the previous, thanks to the difference between the earthy Oxide of Chromium and the synthetic Phthalo Green.
- When Oxide of Chromium is mixed with Cadmium Orange, it creates an even earthier, deeper green, which when mixed with white becomes a green-grey.
- The combination of Oxide of Chromium with Ultramarine Violet makes a sumptuous deep grey than has a degree of warmth.
- When a touch of the green is added to Cadmium Orange, it turns a brown-green that would be useful in woodland paintings.
- The terracotta brown made with Cadmium Orange and a hint of Ultramarine Violet is surprisingly naturalistic, and when more Violet is added it turns to a deep violet-black. When white is added it becomes a greyish violet.
- When a hint of Oxide of Chromium is added to Ultramarine Violet it becomes a violet-grey.
As with the previous palette, I then explored what other mixes could be made by creating a group of pale mixes, a group of mid-tone mixes and a group of dark mixes. The mixes tended to appear warmer than the other palette – leaning towards more browns and less blues and greens, which is a direct consequence of the difference in staining power between the two greens. Comparing the two sets of mixes, I would say that the Oxide of Chromium/Cadmium Orange Gen/Ultramarine Violet palette feels like a more versatile set of colours, as the colours are gentler and perhaps more representative of the colours you are likely to see in the natural world.
If like me, the primary colours are a frequent player on your palette yet you wish to break out of your comfort zone I would recommend either of these palettes, as it is fascinating how close you can get to mixing reds and blues with either – which will help you to feel like you are still working with familiar colours, albeit within a different colour ‘key’. A complementary palette has the potential for creating harmonious paintings with a gentle yet sophisticated colourism. If you grab a set of complementary colours and feel unconvinced by the vibrancy of the green, orange and purple in your hand, mixing them without reference to subject matter can help to prove their capabilities as well as potentially stir your imagination.