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 Complementary Colours - Grisaille and The Colour Wheel

Grisaille basically means shadow, which is in effect what you want to imply.

Different shades applied systematically will give a 3-dimensional effect.

The easiest way to see this is to look at the buttons shown on a computer screen

such as the yellow button shown here.

They are generally made up of three shades of one colour; dark, medium and light. You know there are three colours drawn on a flat surface yet your eye still cannot shake off the 3D effect. This is the principle you apply when doing grisaille. The most important thing is keep true to the direction of light you originally chose.   Used expertly grisaille can be the most stunning form of trompe l'oeil.  

Most references refer to Grisaille as painting in greys and blacks, or painting with greys.

In Coloured Pencil terms we are referring to the greying effect of complementary colours


A Colour Wheel is a simple ( though inexact ) method of showing how colours react with each other, mix with, and complement each other.

Complementary colours lie opposite each other across the wheel.

This wheel has been prepared using a selection

 of 12 Caran d’Ache Pablo colours.

Starting with three nearest to the primaries,

( Yellow, Blue and Red ),

we add secondary colours

( Orange, Violet and Green )

and then 6 Tertiary Colours ( those in between

- like ‘Blue Green’ and ‘Yellow Orange’)

..... when you have reached this stage, work over the top of each segment again with the main colour.  This will intensify the main colour and show up the dark band in the centre of the segment.

The aim is to finish with the circular band in the middle of the segments ( as shown above ) which has the

opposite colour as an underpainting. The wheel then illustrates how the complementary colour will darken the later colour.

These darker colours show up as a circular band within the wheel

  As you see, some colours darken better than others. There is no prefect solution.  

If you wish to try this with your own colours, follow the procedure below.

Draw your main circle with two smaller ones within it ( to produce the band ).

Split your circle into 12 segments (30 degrees ), and select 12 colours from your box.

The principle is that mixing the three primary colours together will produce a grey or black (depending on the strength of the colours used )  Mixing dark blue with dark orange will produce a good black as all three primaries are involved.  

With paint, and pigments,  this becomes a little complicated by the fact that no individual colour is ‘pure’ and most manufactured colours contain a blend of colouring compounds.  This is what makes a lemon (green) yellow different from an orange yellow.  In Watercolour the best two colours to mix for a vibrant black are Dark Ultramarine (a blue with a purple content), and Burnt Sienna (a dark orange red) or any similar combinations of blue and dark red.  The most intense colours produce the darkest mixtures.

With pencils we use the technique of building up depth of colour with layers, and this enables us to employ the same principle to produce darker tones of our selected colours without employing the dreaded blacks and dark greys.

We do have to be cautious though, as some colours are very much stronger in tinting than others.  If you blend a yellow with a dark blue, you tend to need a lot of yellow to counteract a small amount of blue.  This is because the blue has a much higher tinting strength.  As with watercolour and other liquid paints, it is always better to start with the less saturated colour (in this case the yellow ) and add the blue.  If you lay down the blue and try to influence the shade on the paper with added yellow, you will need a lot of yellow to make an impression.  This is why tutors in watercolours always suggest you start with the lightest colour with the lowest tinting strength and add the dark colour carefully to it.

To start the other way around, you will probably finish up with a bucket of mixture rather than a small cupfull !!

A favourite combination of colours is to lay down an underpainting with dark Mauve Red or Purple where we are going to add green at a later stage.  The transparency of most Coloured Pencils enables the green to filter the contrasting colour from underneath to produce a vibrant dark green.  

A good exercise to try, is to sketch out a small landscape with plenty of trees and bushes and possibly a road winding into the distance.  

Your picture does not need to be too detailed -

I show one of my Acrylic pictures of Edale in Derbyshire

to give you some ideas but you don’t need to spend a lot

of time trying to copy this picture -

just use it as a starting point and

treat it purely as an exercise.

Identify everywhere there is green and select a red

pencil which reflects the darkness.

So, in the areas which will have the darkest greens,

put your darkest red shading.

Leave the lightest areas with no colour.

Now pick out some of those darks in the main oak

tree foliage right of centre.

Your picture should be shades of red  much as a negative

Photo image would look.

NEXT, by applying greens over the top of the reds you will get

an instant dark green where the darkest reds have been placed.

The combination of the underpainting in the complementary colour followed by the addition of the ‘correct’ colour on top darkens or ‘greys’ out the principal colour.  Your underpainting is a ‘grisaille’.

Few boxes of Coloured Pencils have nearly enough dark colours for landscapes.

You don’t really need them anyway as you can make the colours you have darker by mixing the colours from across the colour wheel.

When I get time, I will do the exercise above and show the results here to make it clearer.

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