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The word play is the best word that I can think of for describing what complementary colors can do with one another, but fight is another word that comes to mind. Complements, like people who have more differences than things in common, can create a dynamic energy between each other. Ever heard the phrase, opposites attract? That's a complementary relationship. In an image if you can control how complements are used, you can play with the energy the colors fighting. Or playing to attract attention and move the eye around the image.
To demonstrate, the kind of playful energy that can be harnessed with complements. I'll start with a book that I wrote and illustrated. My Little Pony Under The Sparkling Sea. I used iridescent colors to represent the magic of the place with the idea of being in an underwater world. So by studying the iridescence, of shells and bubbles and jellyfish, I was able to discover complementary colors in action. That provided the palate that just fit the essence in atmosphere I was going for. When I begin a new piece, I choose a base color to build upon.
This colored base is called a ground. Throughout the creation of the book, I choose grounds that will react as a compliment to the most important elements with the greatest vibrancy. On the cover, the ground color, in this case the pastel paper, is a vibrant fuchsia. Is causing the opposite color, the blue green of the water, and two main characters, the mermare Electra and the pony Rainbow Dash to vibrate and react with the greatest intensity.
Because some important characters, are pink and purple, not very different from the ground color, I made sure to paint those things that are next to the characters. In complementary colors so that they would still pop, but not quite as much as the main focus. Here the green reacts with the pink of Pinkie Pie/g. And here the dark green of the grass and lime color of the shell walk react to the purple of Twilight Sparkle. I also used an orange brown value for the shells to react, as a compliment to the ground, but again with less intensity than the two main characters.
Notice that the shadows meant to turn around form, or be less visible, are closer to the ground color. This is known as color hierarchy. Color hierarchy is establishing, the order of importance in the elements in a piece through the use of color. The things that are most vibrant create the most contrast and become your focal points. As contrast, and vibrancy descend, so does our attention to those elements. In this painting, the ponies needed to be in focus, so I could choose a ground that would allow the vibrant pink, purple, orange and red of the ponies to really stand out.
All the other elements recede, in importance as they are not complimentary to the color scheme of the environment. To keep focus, on all the pony's I use the light and the complimentary pink and purple to direct the viewers eye to the main characters here, and along here, like a visual net. Complimentary colors are ripe with possibilities because their energy when they play next to or on top of each other is explosive, and hard to ignore. Don't let the vibrancy in vibrations scare you.
Because when you embrace the complements, and all they can do for you, it's bound to be an amazing relationship.
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