Neutralizing Colors Efficiently

I keep hearing art instructors tell students to neutralize saturated tube colors with their compliments. To neutralize Red, use the ‘compliment’ Green, for Orange use Blue, and Purple will tint Yellow. There are problems with this approach:

  • True compliments that neutralize colors are not what is popularly asserted. As I’ve written elsewhere (see Software Color Doesn’t Agree), what really neutralizes a red is not green, but a teal. Orange is neutralized somewhat greenish blue, and yellow by a somewhat purplish blue, as this chart illustrates (number correspond to hue numbers in the HSL computer color space):


  • One of the reasons why the conventional advice evolved is that to the naked eye, it looks like the traditional compliments do neutralize. Take a Cadmium Red and mix it with Viridian and it will look neutral. So there is some truth to it, but it’s not a perfect neutralization. Keep this mind:
    • The blended color is not really a true compliment. It might not even be the hue of its label; it’s a tint of a warmer hue. The color you’re mixing with is not a tint of the hue you’re thinking of. That’s because hues shift towards perceptually cooler temperature as they are tinted. Therefore, a dark green like Viridian would look warmer if fully saturated and brighter.
    • Tinting with the ‘compliment’ means that a certain value (aka brightness) inherent in the added color is forced on the mixture, and it’s likely not the value you’re targeting. It’s very hard to mix traditional compliments for lighter value ranges, for example. If you want to neutralize a pink, you have to find a really light green. In practice ­one ends up mixing in white, and at that level of tinting, you can’t really discern the true hue anyway. So as long as it is close to the cool or warm we’re looking for, we’re satisfied.
    • Phenomena in perceived colors are projected into the color mixing process, and this doesn’t help. It’s true that with a cool light, the highlights will obviously be cool, and the shadows will look warm. We tend to think the light hitting the shadows is of a complimentary hue to the one hitting the lights, especially as the light is saturated. We get this phenomena in the extreme with sunsets – the very warm yellow setting sun will light up warm clouds where it hits, and the very same cloud will look blueish grey where the light does not hit. The color of the form is the same on the light and dark sides, but the complimentary highlight/shadow phenomena of light makes them look very different. Just because that’s how color is perceived doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be mixed!

Despite these tendencies, professional artists will arrive at good results, not because they are literally following the traditional compliments theory. Rather, through experience and a lot of mixing, they get what they want, and chalk up any deviations to the inherent ambiguity of artists’ tube colors. One manufacturer’s Brown Pink is a lot more orange than another’s. Not everyone can tell the temperature difference between a maroon and a scarlet.

In fact, we would benefit from an objective hue numbering standard for hue colors. For example, regardless of the traditional name, an additional hue number would be printed on the tube, along with some saturation and brightness rating. This could be mapped to a computer model, like Hue Saturation and Brightness (HSL). But that’s a topic for another day.

So how can we more efficiently mix the greys we’re after? The answer is actually straight forward, but it requires throwing out another rule that many painters who ‘tint with compliments’ swear by (including the Impressionists): don’t use black because it ‘muddies’ colors. Let’s now also dispel this scare tactic – a ‘muddy’ color is just another grey that finds itself in the wrong place. Any grey can be a muddy color in a given context. If you’re painting a sepia portrait, warm greys are wonderful. If you’re painting portrait in a cool light, the same grey will look muddy.

It’s ironic that artists who loathe black use white quite liberally. While both black and white are neutral colors and technically both have the capability of ‘muddying’ colors, artists don’t dump on white because at the lighter range, we’re much more forgiving of ‘wrong’ greys. We actually don’t see ‘muddy’ whites. Let’s call a spade a spade: all tints are greys, and ‘muddy’ colors are simply greys out of context.

So the problem is not about having black on your palette; the problem is with not understanding how to properly tint colors. This brings us back to two areas we touched on: hue shift, and target brightness. Hue shift is simply the phenomena that colors will look cooler when tinted. Take Vasari Ruby Red, for example, mix it with various shades of grey, and it will look pink in the lights and lavender in the darks (as shown here).


Take a lemon yellow, mix it with black, and you’ll be convinced that there is a warm green in the mixture (but there isn’t).


It’s valuable to know the expressive range of your colors on their own, and how they change with pure greys. This will simplify the thought process and let you focus on other challenges in the work. Develop a sense for that color’s hue shift on tinting. The best way to do this is to simply mix up a range of light and dark greys from black and white, and then mix your tube color into each. This will take some time, but if done on some canvass sheets, you can actually pin them to a cork board on your wall for reference. That way, instead of winging it every time guessing at the hue you’re looking at, you can instead compare it with your wall swatches and then pick the proper tube color and know which value of grey to mix it with.

What I’ve touched on here is a method of mixing that relies on using true greys – and this means use black! Let’s face it, if the traditional method of using compliments to neutralize is true, then exactly half way between the two colors is a perfectly neutral grey that is indistinguishable on its own from a mixture from black and white. As you know, black and white are cheaper than other pigment colors, so why waste all that money having a perfectly complimentary tube color for every color you intend to use? That’s anyway not possible because pigments don’t align neatly with the saturation and value of a given tube color’s perfect compliment. You’d also have to have many more colors that would otherwise be the case if you just mixed to grey. So take the mythology of compliments out of your mind for color mixing. Put that traditional color wheel in the bottom drawer. There is certainly a place for oscillating between warm and cool colors in a painting for interest. To achieve that level of visual excitement on the canvass, you can just mix each color directly, and apply it. Simulate the complimentary effect of light in the image, not in the mixing process. You’ll preserve visual interest while conserving on precious colors, and mix faster once you know your colors native potential.

Copyright © 2015 Roy Zuniga

Personalities of Color

I don’t just want to paint; I want to impact lives through through painting. We want analysis in order to learn how to efficiently mix hues, but we also need to understand where and how to add meaning with color. How do we talk about art systematically without narrowing the scope to understanding optical perception only? We can start with the innate character of colors. If the creative process is a metaphor for our will to exist together, we can foster a good social culture by combining colors. The solitary artist can be influencing the direction of the world by how she works with the energy of color.

The tension inherent the plurality of beings in our world has to be addressed through a unified composition in our paintings. The plurality and variety in the world around us has to be the subject of a reforming artist. Color is the key. Unity and visual harmony is built into the continuity of the color wheel, which closes on itself, implying a cycle of life and expressing the harmony potential.


On the electromagnetic spectrum, visible color is a minor segment in a very large continuum – there is infrared on one side, and ultraviolet light on the other that we cannot see with the naked eye. For humans, the relatively small segment of visible light waves is in fact everything we can see. Moreover, colors visible to humans are not perceived as a linear segment. On the artists’ color wheel, the color progressions loop back around. This should clue us in that thinking purely in scientific terms about the spectrum will cause us to miss a crucial element of meaning in the color wheel (subject to interpretation, of course). The energy of all visible colors coming together into what we see as ‘pure’ white light is a divine gift we can use to build a visual vocabulary of relationships.

For example,

  • The cyclical nature of the color indicates closure and resolution is possible.
  • Like a person’s personality, the more intense the color, the more that intensity precludes intermingling with others.
  • Mixing with the direct opposite results in a boring neutrality and the absence of any energy.
  • While colors have their own ‘voice’ or inherent emotion, they have the best (and worst) appeal when put into context with other colors.
  • Vibrancy and harmony does not mean the absence of strong color personalities.
  • And so on . . .

To create a painting, however, we have to understand color mixing. We can organize our thinking about color systematically, as we shall see below. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of these exercises has to be supporting meaningful expression, which to me is about catalyzing a connection with others in this world.

The fact that the color wheel is closed means we have a finite conceptual model to work with, i.e. a system for understanding. How do colors get along? You have to know their personalities.

My color progressions below demonstrate, for example, that relatively speaking, some colors like yellow, more quickly lose ‘yellowness’ when moving across the interim stops in the color wheel, than say red loses its ‘redness’ in the same span. Colors, like red and green, and to a lesser extent blue and purple, have a far broader set of stops where they appear to retain their color character, i.e. redness or greenness.


Red and green are the most expansive colors – we perceive them to strongly influence neighboring hues. Redness and greenness cross more stops on the color wheel than other colors. Next are teal and magenta, which have a more intense if not more expansive presence. Yellow is the strongest individual color, but the boundary for yellowness is very tight, barely going beyond its own stop on the color wheel. Yellow very quickly feels either orangey or green.

The strength of character in color is reduced by tinting. Yellowness disappears quickly in the tints, mostly into a greenish tone, which of course contributes to the expansiveness of green. Yellow is an introverted personality strongest on its own. Blend it with others and its energy dissipates. Purple, on the other hand, survives tinting really well. Its tints remain purplish at any value. It is not an expansive character, but it does have constancy in the lights and the darks.

Yellow is the color of singularity. Green, in close proximity, draws it away from truth like gravity pulls a ball from a summit. A singularity is easy to recognize but hard to hold. From the perspective of civilization that has tamed nature, green seems pretty harmless because of its ubiquity. How do those who live in a more menacing relationship with nature see the color?

Magenta has a frivolous existence as a ‘red’ that is not warm. Magenta cannot stand on its own well. It needs a mantle of yellow to bring it warmth, or the lemon green to warm it by contrast. Blue is solid as steel. It does not penetrate far in any direction, but it does have its own energy. Blue needs no one. Teal is a vivid color: it has the survivability of blue with the bright intensity of magenta or yellow without the weak identity of magenta or the isolated vulnerability of yellow.

Red of course is the powerful color. It has influence laterally and stability into the neutrals. Not as solid as blue, it is nevertheless hot, and as such threatening to anything cold, including blue, which it can weaken into a lavender. Blue gets pulled into red, not the other way around. Red, while ignited by yellow, burns hot and steady on its own.

In my mind red is a color a being. Many examples exist in art, from Gauguin to Sorolla, where an undertone of a red painting surface is allowed to show through within a shape and left as such to connote a living being. Surrounding shapes support it with depth by contrast (light yellows) or warmth by comparison (accentuated by greens and blues).

Red is essential for rendering life, and artists like Leffel will recommend warm shadows and dark areas. In my own animal paintings a magenta base is invoked to red by a glaze of yellow. The interaction of the two colors creates an under layer of redness that oscillates between warm (more yellow) and cool (more magenta). This field of redness is the base energy of the work that does show through in the bodies of creatures and warms through the dark areas, which are pulled into purple in their darkest parts. Purple or violet – which can also be made via overlays on red – are that steady yet warm deep tone that is suitable for rendering living weight in the shadows, even if the paint is transparent. Not all colors can achieve a sense of heftiness despite being rendered with glazes. Hence warm, transparent shadow areas have become a staple of classical painting.

Because of their expressiveness, it is easy to suggest redness and greenness without using the precise red and green colors themselves. Red and green can be implied by tints of neighboring colors. You can’t do that with yellow, magenta or teal, which require an explicit statement.

Achieving unity with colors of different character actually introduces quite a bit of variety. You can have intense co-habitation of colors, the bright greens that dialog with magentas without touching. The yellows that warms a magenta with an overlay, which provide unity of surface when also overlaying a blue, losing itself for the sake of expansive greenness or redness. That same yellow, when fully saturated and opaque will provide a highlight of energy, a literal color spark, to enliven the entire canvass.

With this cursory review of the colors we get a sense of their personalities. With a finite cast of color characters we can mix the full range of human emotions. It’s really quite remarkable what you can do with this ‘secondary’ material of creation, a product of the fracture of the primary white light, the unity of energy.

Add figurative allusions to the interaction of the community of color, and you increase the power of the art. Colors then become a commentary on the characters. Brighten a solemn ox with the sparkle of teal, lemon green, magenta and yellow and suddenly the oxen have an emotional life, an allusion to both their impotence and forced yoke of servitude.


Add blues to a solemn tiger’s head and impenetrable majesty is given to a creature full of action-potential, as evidenced by its red and orange fur.


Surround a rhino with teal and you reinforce the dynamic presence of that pre-historic looking creature. Teal is a color of solid motion: but it cannot stay teal for long because it is an unstable color; it must blend. For a serious subject like the rhino, deepening monochromatic purple shadows that allow the underlying reds to shine through is the idea of raw animal power.


Add to all this an understanding of tone, and you can give great import to works of unnatural color. When approached with concentration and purposeful interpretation, the color artist is indeed a portraitist of live characters. Gauguin is one who worked with both symbol and color in his art. Understanding the characters of color, Gauguin’s Christ could only be yellow. Yellow exists in itself only, a singularity that does not draw other colors in, but that will quickly bleed out. Gauguin’s yellow Christ has bled out to redeem the entire countryside.


As an artist, you get to, in the alchemical sense, impart spirit into the paints. It is this combinatory dynamic of an artistic agent taking the variety of colors, adding the dimension of the figurative and the illusory power of form and you can achieve works with seemingly autonomous existence. My goal is to create works that are a mind of their own.

Of course these works don’t have self-consciousness. Their ‘spirit’ is surely a relational one. The colors perceived, after all, exist only in the observer because of the work itself has absorbed all the energy we don’t see. In itself, the art material is an anti-work, the inverse of what we perceive as far as light reflected and absorbed. In the absolute sense the works are a fraud. They are nothing in themselves. In relation to the observer however, they have an existence, which is an enticing understanding because we implicitly know these lively works we mysteriously relate to, that can be our teachers, teasers of taste, and addictive enough to become the single most expensive artifacts on earth – these powerful beings actually cease to have power when we don’t look at them. There’s some kind of relationship there, which adds to the mystery of art. You don’t have to power it on: just look at it, and it is active in your mind.

Art does not die on its own because apart from us they have no meaningful existence. The more attention we give them, the stronger they become, to the point where those of us who can, will spend a fortune to have access to this power of the works – a power, again, which lives only in our minds.

— copyright (c) 2014 Roy Zuniga