Complementary Colors, Myth or Reality?

August 23, 2022

Why use JumpStory?

Save time: We've curated the best images for you.

Save money: Unlimited use for just $23 per month.

Get the latest posts delivered to your inbox

Why use JumpStory?

- Save time:
  We've curated the best   images for you.

- Save money:

  Unlimited use from $23   per month.

I can’t think of a book about painting or photography that does not start with the color theory. Yet what can color wheels, complementary colors, the science of pigments, and everything scientific about colors tell us about a picture? I can imagine Millet or Rembrandt casting a wary eye over these theories, scratching their heads, and ditching the books in question, getting hold of their brushes, and going on with their work. What if we took an irreverent, yet learned, look at complementary colors?

An irreverent look at complementary colors

What if we ditched the complementary color theory? Granted, in the below picture, it works pretty well.

woman in a contrasting colour dress

Joseph Stoddard in his Expressive Painting opus starts his color chapter with a note about why artists should forget about the color wheel and focus on experimentation rather than “conduct an exhaustive analysis of color theory.’ (Expressive painting — 2018 – Quarto Publishing group, p 136).

And then he moves on to explain the color theory.

colour wheel theory

My rendition of Joseph Stoddard’s color wheel as in Expressive painting (2018 – Quarto publishing group). There is a big issue with digital colors rendered on a screen. The unrealistic blending of colors, screen calibration or lack thereof, the resolution of your screen, display brightness setup, not to mention the choice of RGB vs CYMK , and a million other things make it painting on a screen a somewhat imperfect substitute for paper and proper pigments.

You don’t always need complementary colors

The principle whereby pictures whose colors are taken from opposite sides on the color wheel will work best looks ludicrous to me.

As often with theories, pundits will expatiate at length about the intricacies of things that we, mere mortals, would have taken for granted without even a second thought.

Don’t misunderstand me. It works well, sometimes, as in the picture below, but not always. 


This one is stressing complementary colors even more. They aren’t complementary colors per se, though, split complementary rather. But who cares about that?

I am a photographer and a painter. For years on end, I painted watercolors until I forged my own style.

In the above picture, as it happens, the scan has made the colors paler, the digital rendition of this watercolor is far from being as lively as the original.

Essentially, I consider myself as, above all, a colorist. Yet I never used the color wheel. Instead, I have built my own palette over time, my set of preferred colors.

But painting is miles away from photography.

Photography, in Greek, means writing (or drawing) with light, and colors too. Split complementary colors again in this instance. Yellow is complementary with purple, but you’ll have to admit that the vivid green in the shoes and towel is doing a pretty good job here.

Reinventing the world with colors

With watercolors you can reinvent the world, color it the way you like, you are not guided by reality. Should you wish to paint red trees and purple oranges, nobody can stop you from doing it.

Many have done so.

Amongst others, the expressionists, such as August Macke, were quite intent on doing this. And the good thing is, most artists never cared about the color wheel.

cherry blossom

I can’t think of two more complementary colors than those of cherry blossoms against a clear blue sky. Yet, if we believe the color theory, they aren’t complimentary at all. Of course, all this holds out as long as you are not color-blind, or that your vision isn’t impaired.

And yet.

Both Monet and Matisse had lost much of their sight towards the end of their lives.

Yet, their most famous paintings (or collages) were made during that period.

water lilies by Monet
Claude Monet, ‘Water Lilies’

Monet painted his most beautiful waterlilies while his sight was heavily impaired. Hence the blurry aspect of the set of monumental paintings in the Orangerie in Paris.

I suppose it means something. A bit like poetry. One catches a glimpse of something one doesn’t quite understand but the feeling is there. Similarly, the painter vaguely sees swathes of color but that’s sufficient for a poetical rendition of reality and color.

Please note that Monet, as in the above picture, but also in his pictures of the Cathedral of Rouen, made good use of complementary colors (purple and yellow as in the above picture).

Other painters, way before Monet’s time, were working with their own color wheels. Dutch and Flemish artists are quite famous for this. Bruegel or Bosch to start with. And obviously, a lot later, Rembrandt Van Rijn.

The vast majority of the Dutch master’s painting is set in similar hues. And some of his most famous canvases are even brownish monochromes.

Photography, a horse of a different color

Photography starts with reality and tries — potentially — to depict a concept.

Colourful paints

Yet, Photography is entirely different from painting. At least, in theory.

Photography starts with reality and tries, or not, to depict a concept.

Painting starts with a concept and attempts, or not, to depict reality.

To a point that I find that modern photography is increasingly moving into abstract expressionism whereas modern painting is coming back to basics as in Hirst’s Cherry blossoms or Hockney’s latest Normandy paintings.

colourful straws

A bunch of colored straws — reality turned into an abstract picture. So multicolored that the color wheel is bound to be represented entirely

Modern painting is going back to basics and becoming more figurative, whereas more than a century ago painters were breaking away from that tradition. Complementary colors can be seen here and there. Yet, more importantly, is Hockney’s palette in this stunning exhibition of 82 portraits and 1 still life – 2012.

In Summary

So, what should we conclude from this look at complementary colors and the color theory?

We all use it, even though sometimes unconsciously. We are undoubtedly attracted by complementary colors, which must be something to do with the human mind. I’m no expert so, I won’t even try to elaborate.

There is a story that says that George Braque used to take his paintings to the wheat fields to see if they could withstand reality. As it were, paintings, and photographs, must have a life of their own, but do they need to be confronted with reality? Especially when they have taken inspiration from it.

I’m not sure we need more of that reality.

What we need are dreams that take us far away from the dullness and hardships of life. These pictures don’t just help us forget about all this; they also help turn the world into a better place.

And so do colors.

Should you need complementary colors to do this, so be it.

What matters though is that you, as a painter, a photographer, or a mere beholder or user of Jumpstory, invent your own language with colors, one that keeps our dreams alive.

About the author

Yann Gourvennec is the CEO & Founder of Visionary Marketing. He is a marketeer, specialising in Web and social media marketing, a lecturer, keynote speaker and author.


Yann Gourvennec

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 2.5 / 5. Vote count: 2

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Want more?

Get 10 free, down-to-earth eBooks about marketing, visual communication and storytelling. Written by authors like Guy Kawasaki (Apple), Lars Fjeldsoe (Dropbox), Peter Kreiner (Noma) and more.

Want 25% off?

You're likely not ready to try our service right now. And that's alright.

How about we e-mail you a discount code for when you are?

We will of course also send you a brief explanation on what’s so special about us. And subscribe you to our regular newsletter, where you’ll be notified when we publish content like this page.

But don’t worry. We won’t share your address with anyone else. And it’s just one click, then you’re off our list again.