Teaching Painting: Expanding the Complimentary Palette

Student painting with expanded red and green complimentary set.

Student painting with expanded red and green complimentary set.

I have been sharing how I teach my middle school students to build a palette around the complimentary sets (yellow/violet, blue/orange, and red/green). The advantage of this is to assure a good range of harmonious tertiaries that will allow them to achieve the impression of depth with color. But clearly those sets offer too narrow of a range for most subject matters. The complimentary set is just a tool to create a structural “backbone” for the painting. Let me use the above painting to demonstrate how I teach my students to expand the palette.

When we look at the above image we see red and yellow. To create the backbone of neutral and muted hues we need a complimentary color. Our only two choice are violet (the compliment of yellow) or green (the compliment of red). The subject doesn’t lend itself well to a yellow/violet color scheme so we will choose the green. That will allow us to create the black for the silhouetted foreground and the beautiful range of muted reds which allows the bright hues to really stand out. But what about that yellow sun? After we create the complimentary palette as I’ve described in previous posts, we will add a little yellow to ALL the red mixtures to maintain harmony and then we will be able to successfully add the pure yellow and a tint of yellow.

We use the same materials described in earlier posts.

Step One—Prepare the Palette. Beginning the same as before, the student puts red paint in three of the wells. In the first one they mix in a small amount of green. In the next one they increase the amount of green. In the last one they again increase the amount of green. This last mixture should result in a very dark blood red.

Place green in one well and add enough red to make an effective black.

Put white paint in four of the wells. Select some of each of the red mixtures to mix into three of the white wells to create tints of the muted red hues. In the fourth white well add yellow. At this point the yellow has no harmony with the red hues on the palette. To solve that problem put a little yellow in each of the six red hues. You should achieve beautiful warm reds and corals as well as some dusty, muted corals and rich rusts.

The student can use the pure red, white, and yellow as well. This painting always needs a second white plastic palette to continue mixing and expanding their colors. Use “Press and Seal” plastic wrap over the palettes to keep the paint from drying out between painting sessions.

Step Two — Paint the Painting. I remind the student to start by painting the sky being careful to keep the brush pinched clean as they blend between the yellow sun and the red sky. Don’t go on to the water until the sky is complete. They also need to be reminded to keep the sun’s reflection directly under it.

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