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Complementary colors: cinema, painting and photography

May 23, 2020
Complementary colors in cinema, photography and painting

Complementary colors is another great chapter of color theory in art. Two complementary colors put together create contrast and dynamism at the same time balancing the whole scene. It’s a lively and harmonious contrast which contributes to create that aesthetic beauty sought by Giorgio De Chirico in his paintings.

Wikipedia definition: The traditional color wheel model dates to the 18th century and is still used by many artists today. This model designates red, yellow and blue as primary colors with the primary–secondary complementary pairs of red–green, blue-orange, and yellow–purple. In this traditional scheme, a complementary color pair contains one primary color (yellow, blue or red) and a secondary color (green, purple or orange). The complement of any primary color can be made by combining the two other primary colors. For example, to achieve the complement of yellow (a primary color) one could combine red and blue.

In this article I refer to the traditional RYB color model: complementary color pairs are red/green, yellow/purple, and blue/orange. I’ve made three examples below with red/green pair to explain better what I want to say when I talk about the use of complementary colors in photography, cinema and painting.


complementary colors photography
Sharbat Gula by Steve mcCurry (National Geographic)


Looking at cinema I chose as example a wonderful frame extracted by the corean film I Saw the devil. The two dominant colors, green (sheet) and red (blood and light), create a beautiful visual impact. But this chromatic contrast is also a conceptual contrast; in fact green is tranquillity and red is violence.

complementary colors cinema
I saw the devil


In painting I can make many examples like the use of complementary colors in De Chirico. In this article I chose to talk about The Dance by Henri Matisse; he was an exponent of fauves, his paintings are usually characterized by saturated and vivid colors. This work of art has different versions (Moma in NYC, Hermitage in ST. Petersburg…). He put together complementary colors but also warm and cold shades to give more dinamysm and vivacity to the scene. Look also at the wonderful shapes and curves. The use of colors with the shapes and curves create the idea of movement: the dance. Again the use of complementary colors (plus warm/cold contrast) is important for the aesthetic but also for the “message” of the painting.

complementary colors art
Henri Matisse

That’s all folks


 Stay well, have always light in your life

Best, F.S

Read previous article about color:

Red in art, painting and cinema here

Orange in cinema

 Yellow in cinema

read also:

The wonderful photography in Federico Fellini’s movies

Blade Runner 2049 cinematography


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