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!


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  2. 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!

  3. 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.


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

    awesome brush work

  6. 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.


  7. […] Each painting creates its own special set of problems, because each one is its own lesson in itself. As you are painting, you are going to discover things along the way that will alter your original approach. […]

  8. SKD January 13, 2014 at 3:20 am

    Good inputs by you Lori. It’s very helpful in understanding the colors and choose the best one for an artist.

    • Lori McNee January 19, 2014 at 11:32 pm

      I am glad you enjoyed this post. It was an interesting project for me too… 🙂

  9. 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 🙂

  10. 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…

  11. 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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