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Fixing Colors with Color Complements

Understanding how to work with color over large areas is sadly lacking in most finishers' training and indeed many designers are at a loss when confronted with anything outside of drapery and fabric . Painters are prone to blame the paint store for colors that become too bright. Most art schools ignore the beautiful varieties of earth colors so the artist is at a loss when confronted with a seemingly dull pigment that becomes alive over a large area. Very little is written for the decorative finisher who has to work with broad areas of color instead of concentrated patches.

Understanding how to adjust color in paint or glazes is key and my goal is to show that there is no mystery to color, just certain tricks you can use to control it. This article will concentrate on using a color wheel and focus on use of color complements to reduce the brightness of a particular color or pigment without making it darker.

The Keys to Color theory book Dean's book is now available at both Amazon and at this website

I try to teach color theory with a minimum of technical terms, but it is just about impossible without lapsing into some common and uncommon words to describe color. Many of these terms are used in everyday language but I think in the most part incorrectly. It is necessary to have an agreement about definitions so that confusion is kept (at least) to a minimum.

Terms :

  • TINT - Hue (color) lightened with white. Various lighter or darker shades of a color.
  • SHADE - Hue (color) darkened with black or neutral earth color.
  • TONE - Color plus black and/or white
These additional terms are used to describe the three elements of color:
  • HUE - The technical name for color. Also describes the position of a color on a classic color wheel and is used to name the color. Yellow, Orange, Red for example.

  • VALUE describes the lightness or darkness of a color—its position on a scale from white to black. Paint companies measure this as the light reflective value or LRV percentage.
  • INTENSITY - (sometimes called chroma) refers to the brightness, saturation and impact of a color.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is not used so much to represent paint colors as it is to identify color families and their relationships. The most common wheel has twelve colors where related colors are placed closely together and complementary colors are directly opposite.

Color wheel for mixing paints

Adjusting Paints :

About 90% of the work we do with colors is to adjust a paint or glaze color to suit a client. Everybody has had jobs where the selected color becomes too bright when used to color a glaze or one of the pigments used to make the color ( 1 drop of red oxide for example) does not become apparent until it is seen over a large surface. The pigments that are used to color paints are the glycol-based Universal Tint Colorants (UTC’s) that are known under various trade names such as Cal-tints, Tints-all, Pro-Line, All-tint, etc. As the trade names imply, these are usually used to tint a color, not be the color. Another popular UTC from Germany is the very strong MIXOL pigment line. Most glazes can be colored with UTC's but not the so-called glaze extenders which need paint in them to help them cure. The safest bet for these is to color them with artist colors and/or house paints. Of course that is acrylic/latex/vinyl colors for water-based products and artist oils, alkyds, japan paints, etc. for oil-based materials. Those little craft paints that I know you all have can be considered to be good quality acrylic house paints and are not bad for coloring water-based glazes.

We need at least 3 square feet of a color to really be able to see it. When a color is picked from small chips at the paint store, it rarely turns out to be the one that a person has in mind for the room: that is because color intensifies with area.

Yellow , blues, oranges, etc., become too bright and we must tone them down and take the brightness or intensity out of them without making them darker.

We do this by adding the color's complement in small quantities.

About Complementary Colors

There are six color families that you can see on a color wheel: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. The complementary color is the color directly opposite on the wheel. This is a very important fact to know in color mixing.

Visual properties

Complementary colors are the two colors opposite each other on the wheel. Each color is said to complement the other in that if you place them side by side, each color will intensify the other. Red apples will appear riper on a green cloth, yellow will appear brighter against a purple background, blue will seem more electric if there is some orange close by, etc.

Physical properties – using pigments

When a small amount of a hue’s complementary pigment is added, it will reduce the intensity of the hue without making it darker. In jargon terms, it is called “knocking the color down”. Some examples are:

Green that is too bright - add a touch of red.

Beige that is too pink - add a tiny amount of green.

Blue that is too electric - add some orange (or the earth color burnt sienna).

Yellow that is too bright – add a small amount of violet (or the earth color raw umber).

This property of complementary colors is very useful in color mixing.

When large amounts of complementary colors are mixed together, they will neutralize each other into a cool or warm gray. Every pigment has a different strength, so proportions have to be adjusted to make a perfect neutral.

For example: only a drop of violet will neutralize a tablespoon of yellow but equal quantities of red and green oxide will make a perfect neutral brown.

Adjusting Color

Things never stay simple and that is especially true with color or pigments that are not primary. What we have as paint colors are actually blends of pigments which we have to visually break down so we can adjust them. This is where using the color wheel becomes interesting. You need to see all aspects of a color in order to adjust them and this will take a lot of practice.

Here are some examples of how to adjust:


  • A pink that is too bright: red added to white makes pink, so adding the complement to red (green) will tone it down.
  • A royal blue that is too purple: red added to blue makes purple, so all we have to deal with is the red – add some thalo green (greenish-blue) to erase some of the red and let the blue come out.
  • A mauve that is too cool (blue): knock down the blue with the addition of some orange or warm up the color by adding more red (depends on the mauve color).
  • A shade of green that is too lime - the color lime is made with a mixture of yellow and green (chrome yellow and earth or thalo green): knock down the yellow with some violet or raw umber to let the green come through. If a green is too aqua (bluish) knock out the blue by the addition of some chrome orange. This last one may seem a little weird, but try it , it works.
  • Yellow too bright: tone it down with its complement (violet) a small amount at a time, about 2 drops to a quart. Lemon yellow is frequently made by adding a touch of bright green to the yellow. A customer may just want a friendlier color. You can warm up the color by adding some red, which is the complement of green.

There is no such thing as a primary color in the real world of pigments. Each pigment has its own properties or bias and this aspect will be covered in the next issue, but it is neccessary to know this so you can choose which pigment to use as a complement. We will also list the types of pigments readily available in universal tints and which ones a decorative painter needs to be fully supplied.

Hopefully, you can see just how valuable a color wheel is. Knowing the positions of colors on the wheel is useful not only for learning to use the physical properties of complements to adjust color but also to understand the importance of the chroma or intensity of a color when modifying the hue. Learning to adjust and tint colors will save you many dollars in wasted paint and time spent running back and forth to the paint store.

Dean Sickler
Chatham NJ
edited 2/2005

The Keys to Color theory bookDean's new book is now available at and at this website

1st Published Fall, 2001

Good Luck and please write with any questions/comments.

— Dean Sickler

Pingo Ergo Sum