Painting with Complementary Colors using Yin Yang

I often enjoy painting with a limited palette. A while ago, I limited my palette to only complementary colors using the ancient 5000 year old Chinese philosophy, the ‘balance of opposites’ or yin/yang.

©Lori McNee, A Bit of Summer 16×20

After reading  a favorite book – The Yin Yang of Painting I was so inspired by the artist, Hongnian Zhang, I decided to give this approach a try. I was pleased with my first attempt and wrote a blog post about the process: A Unique Approach to Improve Paintings Using Color Harmony

Here’s a crash course:


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

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

In the chart below, you can see each primary color is opposite its complementary color.

"complementary color wheel"

Getting started:

I took this photograph near my home at the end of winter. It is May now, and I have to admit that I am tired of winter and because of that, really didn’t feel like painting a winter scene….but, the natural complimentary colors of this scene drew me in…



For this painting I could have chosen any of the three primary/complementary  limited palettes, but for this experiment I chose, the natural compliments –yellow and purple.

For the yellow pigments I used:

  • cadmium yellow medium – warm
  • cadmium yellow light – true
  • cadmium yellow pale – cool
  • yellow ochre – softer yellow
  • raw umber – softer yellow

For the purple pigments I used:

  • magenta – warm
  • alizarine crimson – true
  • ultramarine blue – cool
  • dioxazine purple – softer purple

and ivory black & titanium white.

winter up trail creek sun valley idaho

©2010 Lori McNee Winter up Trail Creek” 12×24 oil/board

You can vary the above colors with your own choices, but it is best to always have a warm, true & cool representative for each complementary color.

Believe it or not, I am able to achieve an incredible variety of rich colors and muted grays that are found in nature using the limited palette. I am happy with the results…

I started to get the hang of painting with this palette so while the paints were fresh, I painted another. You can read more about this painting here: Snow Flurries Above the Big Lost.

winter cow painting in idaho

©2010 Lori McNee Snow Flurries Above the Big Lost” oil/board

The last of the three complementary yin/yang palettes I will tackle, is the red and green palette. I will let you know how that goes when it is complete!

If you enjoyed this article you might like to read:

Use the Hidden Meaning of Color to Improve Paintings

The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting

A Unique Approach Using Color Harmony to Improve Your Paintings What do you think about this method of painting?

~ Lori

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  1. forex robot June 6, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

    • Lori McNee June 10, 2010 at 2:13 pm

      With a name like ‘robot’ I am not sure if you are ‘spam’ or not – lol… Glad to help.

  2. Wordpress Themes July 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Amiable post and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you on your information.

    • Lori McNee July 12, 2010 at 1:01 pm

      Glad to help!
      Lori 🙂

  3. Dale Cook January 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Lori – I see so many paintings at art shows that I am particulary drawn to and it turns out that they often use limited palettes. I am going to try those colours and see how my art turns out.

    I enjoy your website and blog.

    • Lori McNee January 14, 2011 at 5:26 pm

      The limited palette has been a lot of fun to experiment with lately. I find that when I use complimentary colors in my work, the painting has an extra harmony that is not as easy to capture with the extended palette. Dale, thanks again for your great comment.

      Happy painting-

  4. Peggy Martinez February 3, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Hi Lori,

    I recently came across your blog and have read articles. This one hit home, today in my pol paintingclass a fellow student was about to start a new painting and wasn’t quite sure how to tackle the question of which colors,. I took one look at it and it screamed orange and blue! She proceeded to start the painting with my suggestion and voila, she nailed the color and was so happy with her painting!

    Yours in art,


    • Lori McNee February 3, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      Hello Peggy. This is a great little story that you shared. I am so happy my article helped you. It really has been a fun way to make harmonious works. If you ever have a tip to share, I’d love to see it.


  5. iloveteddybears999 May 8, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Lori, when I first read this article, i thought you were going to use actual, honest to goodness primary colors, not variations, and i was thinking ‘is she doing abstract art or something, because otherwise it will look like a kids painting (but a very GOOD kid’s painting, don’t get me wrong) so in my opinion you kinda cheated, but I love your painting any-who!
    Love, unicorns, and candy canes,

  6. Mary Beth Brath December 10, 2013 at 10:36 am

    HI Lori – I used your limited palette of purple and yellow today and painted a snow scene from my porch. I really think using your palette suggestion made the painting come together fast…which was good since I needed to go inside after 1 hour to get warm. Thanks again – Mary Beth

    • Lori McNee January 20, 2014 at 12:18 am

      Hello Mary Beth, it was a fun experiment and I loved the results. I hope you give it a try. 🙂

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