Visual Complements

The Difference between  “Visual” Complements and “Mixing” Complements©


This information will change the way you paint!

Most artists know that complementary color pairs can be used for two functions. These are (1) for color mixing- to make clear colors more neutral and (2) for visual color enhancement- to make juxtaposed  colors appear more colorful. Most artists, however, are misinformed about the actual colors of complementary colors pairs. So read on! This information could change the way you paint!

The red Amaryllis flowers appear particularly vibrant because they are surrounded by the VISUAL COMPLEMENT of red, which is Turquoise blue green.

Long before I began to research color I realized that specific pairs of colors mutually enhance one another. This was because in my youth in England when I used to paint color coordinated plaster pixies to sell for extra pocket money, I found that certain combinations such as blue and yellow, were particularly pleasing. These same color pairs are what I now call “visual complements” though I didn’t call them by that name in those far off days!

My later experience as a painter, and research for my books “Color Right from the Start” and “Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints” led me to question the prevailing literature on the subject of complements for artists. It gradually became clear to me that there are not just one set of complementary color pairs but two sets and of colors and they are not the same, though most artists are unaware of this.

My research took me to the basics. What is a complement? A complement is “that which completes.” So what do MIXING and VISUAL complements complete that makes the color pairs to be different? This is the crux of the matter: “MIXING” complements complete the subtractive color mixing process. “VISUAL” complements complete the optical synthesis which is to to with seeing. So I coined the names “MIXING” and “VISUAL” complements to describe the two functions of the two types of complementary color pairs.Lemon yellow appears much more brilliant when surrounded by its visual complement which is blue. Many artists erroneously pair yellow with purple and purple with orange for color enhancement. This is incorrect.                                                                                                                                                                         ………………… Subtractive synthesis: The term refers to how the transmitted light that reflects from your paper is subtracted i.e. gets darker each time you add another paint to the mixture as in the illustration below. Squint at it to see what I mean. In practice, subtractive color mixing for artists using paint on paper has come to refer to paint mixing.

The completion of the subtractive process is black. The color pairs of MIXING COMPLEMENTS are determined because they make black or a very dark gray. In other words they complete the subtractive mixing process. The MIXING COMPLEMENTARY color pairs are a yellow/purple, red/green and blue/orange. We place MIXING COMPLEMENTS opposite one another on the color wheel as below.



When neutralizing a color it is not necessary to have the precise “mixing” complement. A touch of any purple for instance will render most yellows quite unsaturated. Here are the paint colors I have used.
(Permanent) Rose (PV19 red shade)
Winsor Lemon (PY175)
Winsor Blue red shade (PB15)
Green: Winsor Lemon PY175 & Winsor (Phthalo Blue RS PB15:1)
Orange:mixed from Permanent Rose PV19rs and Winsor Lemon PY175
Purple: Carbozole (Winsor) Violet PV23, OR mixed from Winsor (phthalo) Blue RS & Permanent Rose PV19

We use MIXING COMPLEMENTS that we place opposite one another on the color wheel to make bright or saturated colors more neutral or duller.

For instance, add a touch of purple to yellow and you will get a dull yellow, a mustard color. Add a touch of blue to orange and you will get a dull orange, which is brown!



The Optical synthesis: “VISUAL COMPLEMENTS” are used for color enhancement . They are pairs of colors that make each one appear more vibrant when they are painted contiguously. i.e. blue will appear more vibrant if juxtaposed by yellow. (Color enhancement is an aspect of the phenomenon known as simultaneous contrast, related to how the eye works. i.e. lateral inhibition and disinhibition) NOTE: You do not mix Visual Complements.

The actual color pairs are determined because they complete the optical synthesis and appear as a colorless gray.  Only the right pairs will produce a COLORLESS GRAY when painted in the correct proportions either on a disc and spun, or as dots as in Pointillism.

The illustration shows the disc that I spun using Ultramarine blue PB29 and Lemon yellow PY175 . When seen as dots as in Pointilism, Ultramarine blue PB29 and Lemon yellow PY175 make a light, neutral gray. (squint at the dots.) This indicates that these colors are opposites- VISUAL COMPLEMENTS – that when viewed on paper next to one another, each will appear more brilliant. When mixed subtractively blue and yellow make green, as shown (above right).

Fortunately we don’t have to go through this arduous process to determine each visual complementary color pair! Ogden Rood in his book “Modern Chromatics” (1879) named the correct colors of the complementary pairs that he called “contrast colors”.  He put them on a wheel. This is confusing because it suggests that you mix visual complements which you don’t.

The optical color pairs have been quantifiably established by Ellen Marx in her incisive book “Optical Contrast & Simultaneity” (1983 Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc). Ellen Marx does not use the term VISUAL COMPLEMENTS to describe the phenomena. That’s the term that I have come up with for painters in order to distinguish VISUAL COMPLEMENTS from MIXING COMPLEMENTS. I determined the corresponding artists’ pigments in the vertical chart below.

Note that the colors of “visual” complements nearly correspond to the colored “light” complements that complete the additive synthesis of adding colored lights. The right additive pairs of lights when shone together yield a dullish WHITISH light.                BUT WE DON’T PAINT WITH LIGHTS!


COMPLEMENTARY CONFUSION                                                                                                     The mistake in not distinguishing between the colors of MIXING and VISUAL complementary color pairs dates from the start of the nineteenth century. Color-contrast was already an established principle and the term “complement” was first used for so called color harmony and afterimages.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the prolific German author, stated in his “Theory of Colours” (1810) that for “completeness” the eye produces a “complemental hue upon each color”. This is not the same meaning as understood by a “complement” in today’s art. (The after image effect to which he refers relates to a phenomenon known as successive contrast). Goethe also asserted that a mixture of all colors made gray. He designed a triangle of three “complemental” pairs using the same color arrangement as Moses Harris.But Goethe’s triangle was not to show how to mix colors.

The first color wheel that showed artists how to mix colors was created by Moses Harris in 1776. He stated that it was specifically designed for painters as an “aid to color mixing”. Harris first painted the three primary colors red/yellow/blue/> Then he  mixed three “secondary” colors- green/violet/orange/- from the primary colors. Referring to both of these charts, Goethe and Moses Harris many artists then used the same opposite colors both for color enhancement and for color mixing.

 The confusion was sustained by Michel-Eugene Chevreul, a French chemist and color theorist who, unlike Goethe, did indeed understand the difference between subtractive, optical and additive color synthesis. In his book “The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their Application to the Arts”(1839) he offered a wheel showing complementary pairs and specifically stated that this was for color modification “upon the eye”, and not for paint mixing. However, since he used the same colors pairs as Goethe, he continued the error of not distinguishing between “mixing” an “visual” complements. For instance, he used red/green instead of red/ turquoise, blue/orange instead of cyan/orange, and yellow/violet instead of yellow/blue for color enhancement. These color combinations were then erroneously used by many of the French Impressionist painters as well as fashion, garden and interior designers especially of that period.

Ogden Rood in “Modern Chromatics” (1879) whom I referred to above, named the correct “visual” complementary contrast colors- pairs that he called “companions” that when juxtaposed glowed “with more than their natural brilliancy”. Unfortunately, he failed to articulate that there was a difference between “visual” and “mixing” complements.

And so the confusion continued- until today when I hope this article has sorted out the mess for you! Let me know! You might be interested in my video on Visual Complements  and Watercolor Right from the Start available from this site. See the orderform. My other books published by Watson-Guptill publications, Color Right from the Start, Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints have sold out. This revised article puts together their color information for you regarding the difference between MIXING and VISUAL COMPLEMENTS.

Hilary Page 5.8.2020

 This material was originally published by Daniel Smith Inc. in 2000 in their Inksmith publication. Sally Drew Editor. Also in The Artist UK magazine, Dr Sally Bulgin, Editor.


This article/site was upgraded 2019  Copyright 2019©. Material may not be republished in any medium without written permission from Hilary Page.                    

I hope you enjoy working through the demonstration below on using “visual” complements.


Here is a demonstration from start to finish in which I have used a visual complementary pair of colors- yellow and blue for color enhancement: I juxtaposed the yellow lemons with their visual complement, blue, to make the lemons appear especially brilliant.

This Lemons on Blue study is easy for you to duplicate at home or in your studio. All you need are a dozen or so fresh lemons, a couple of blue cloths, possibly a lemon squeezer and a knife, and hey presto! You can paint along!

I used a quarter sheet (11X15″) Arches 140Ib cold pressed paper and the following Daniel Smith paints:

      • Hansa Yellow Light (PY3)
      • Hansa Yellow (PY97)
      • Cobalt Blue (PB28)
      • Ultramarine Blue GS (PB29)
      • French Ultramarine RS (PB29)
      • Quinacridone Rose PV19r

After carefully arranging my lemons and cloths by a north facing window I made a credit-card sized value sketch by squinting to help me see the value. I then did a line drawing to scale on sketch paper which I subsequently transferred to my watercolor paper using a light table. I don’t like to photograph and trace off a drawing since this does not allow for creativity and improvisation, and anyway it’s too boring!

I next squeezed out blobs of paints in three separate palettes for my blues, yellows, and grays. I mixed the grays from Cobalt Blue, Quinacridone Rose and Hansa yellow light. I put about a teaspoonful of water in each palette. To complete by preparations, near where I was working, I placed an absorbent cotton towel on a board that was a little larger than my watercolor paper. You’ll see why soon!

Stage 1

I thoroughly wet my watercolor paper on the front and back surface and then placed it on a slick, plexiglass board which was a little larger than my paper size. I re-wet the edges. I had to work rapidly to complete the stage before the shine left the paper surface.

I dropped in the shadows and blue stripes on the top left hand cloth; then I laid in the blue underpainting on the glass lemon squeezer and the solid blue cloth as shown. Making sure the paper still had a shine I laid in the lemons’ form shadows and cast shadows using a purplish gray mixed from Cobalt blue, Quinacridone Rose and a touch of Hansa yellow light.

Once completed I quickly transferred the wet paper to the cotton towel placed on a flat surface to avoid backrun watermarks round the edges.

If the shine had left the surface before I completed the shadows, I would have had to thoroughly dry the paper to set the paint and then re-wet it to prevent watermarks from forming. I could also use this procedure to re-state values. It is important to have the values correct at the preliminary stage so the second stage is a synch!

Stage 2

On completely dry paper, using a bamboo pen, I drew several dots of masking fluid on the blue paint on lemon squeezer.

Before painting the lemon yellow on each lemon I put a blob of clear water for the high light.
I re-wet the solid blue cloth in sections and dropped on the first wash of blue paint. Occasionally I lifted out paint with a damp sable brush. I left the lemon next to the knife unpainted to show you the sequence.

Stage 3

Studying my set up carefully, I worked in small areas as shown. If I wanted a soft edge I made sure the paint was surrounded by clear water that it could merge in to. If I wanted a hard edge I painted on dry paper. Sometimes I turned my painting upside down to gauge the underlying shapes. Finally I added the dark accents and details.

I hope you have enjoyed this step by step study for visual complements. There are many more such demonstrations in my books Watercolor Right from the Start and Color Right from the Start and as here, each one illustrates a different aspect of watercolor painting or color theory. Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints then identifies the very best paints now available to you for your own painting endeavors!