A Unique Approach Using Color Harmony to Improve Your Paintings

This past weekend I was feeling unmotivated in the studio. I have just finished painting still lifes for the winter season and now must  make the switch to painting landscapes for my summer shows. I enjoy bouncing between the two disciplines, but lately nothing seemed to inspire me.

So, here is what I did…

  • I decided to have some fun and experiment with color harmony or complimentary colors.
  • Pairs of colors that share no common elements with each other are called, ‘complimentary colors’.
  • Instead of my traditional palette, I chose to experiment with a revolutionary idea of painting using the 5000 year old yin/yang approach.
  • The ancient Chinese understood our world in terms of a balance of opposites. Everything in nature has its opposite.

For example:

  • moon/sun
  • black/white
  • day/night
  • sunrise/sunset

Every color has its opposite too! Each ‘primary’ color or hue (red, yellow, blue) is directly opposite a ‘secondary’ color (green, purple, orange).

These complimentary colors are always found opposite each other on the color wheel:

  • Red – Green
  • Yellow – Purple
  • Blue – Orange

When opposite colors are mixed they create beautiful, chromatic neutral grays. Using this technique, I limited my palette to the family of complimentary colors I felt were best suited for the subject being painted.

Out of the three yin/yang palette possibilities, I chose the blue and orange palette.

This is the landscape reference photo:

“Mountain Gold – Adam’s Gulch”© 2010 Lori McNee

For the ‘orange’ pigments I used:

  • cadmium red light – warm orange
  • cadmium orange – true orange
  • cadmium yellow medium – cool orange
  • burnt sienna – softer orange

For the ‘blue’ pigments I used:

  • ultramarine blue – warm blue
  • cobalt blue – true blue
  • phthalo blue – cool blue

and ivory black & titanium white

You can vary the above colors with your own choices, but it is best to always have a warm, true & cool representative for each opposite color. These complimentary colors vibrate when painted next to each other and are beautifully muted when mixed. A broad range of colors can be mixed from this limited palette. The results are harmonious and color intensity can be controlled.

I was able to mix luscious greens, rich browns and vibrant autumn colors next to quieter grays. I am please with the results and plan to try painting a series of landscapes using the yin/yang palettes – I’ll keep you posted!

For more information I suggest reading The Yin/Yang of Painting Also, using the color wheel can help you determine color schemes balance and harmony in your artwork, web-pages, designs or home decorating.

Happy Painting – Lori

P.S. If you have an art or marketing tip, or art article you would like to share please submit it here!


  1. John Lawson February 22, 2011 at 12:56 pm


    Many thanks for your insightful articles and art tips. As an avid painter, I’m always look for new tips and tricks and you’ve been a big help to me.


    John Lawson

    • Lori McNee February 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks John. It is always a very nice compliment to receive good feedback from avid painters such as yourself.

      Happy painting!

  2. Dammy May 14, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I love this blog, more grease to your elbow Lori!

    • Lori McNee May 14, 2011 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks Dammy! I will keep working hard. I appreciate the feedback.


  3. ryan June 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    awesome brush work

  4. tadj September 4, 2012 at 3:39 am

    I was browsing the net for color harmony in oil paintings, when i came cross your post! great article i found it very helpful, i am going to try this in my next painting.

    • Lori McNee September 4, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Great Tadj, I am glad this post inspired you. Thanks for taking time to let me know. I’d love the hear how your painting turns out.


  5. Angela February 6, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Lori, this is a great article. I have used a similar technique when priming a canvas before starting to paint. I will paint the entire canvas in a complementary mid tone colour. For example when doing a seascape of mostly blue I will underpaint with burnt sienna. The ‘shadow’ of burnt sienna under the blue gives an extra vibrancy, especially if little parts of it show through. I also like how you posted your reference photo next to the finished painting and would love to see more of those comparisions

    • Lori McNee February 21, 2014 at 11:44 pm

      Thanks for enjoying this post. I love using the compliment for the underpainting too. I will plan to do more photo/landscape painting comparisons in the future. Thanks for your feedback 🙂

  6. Paulo Constantino November 7, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    The color wheel shown here shows yellow opposite violet, whereas some other color wheels show yellow opposite a kind of ultramarine blue. Why ?

    • Lori A McNee May 1, 2016 at 2:32 pm

      Hello Paulo, many apologies for the belated reply. I am not sure of this answer except to guess those charts are considering Ultramarine Blue a violet? It is a warm blue. That is my best guess…

  7. Chris March 1, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    This was a good lesson for any landscape painter – I found it simple and useful and like the recipes!

    • Lori A McNee April 1, 2016 at 12:06 am

      Oh good Chris! I’m glad you enjoyed trying this new way of creating a palette. Thanks for the visit.

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