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re: stumped - complement of brown


From: Marvin Bartel (marvinpb_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Thu Aug 21 2003 - 22:19:30 PDT

What is the complement of brown?
I love brown. I want my stoneware clay body to fire to a brownish
color and have brown iron spots. To understand the complement of
brown one must ask about the source of brown. Since brown has a
fairly broad definition, students can get something that looks a bit
brown by mixing two complements. This is okay if the definition of
brown is mud - which has many possible subtle colors. Of course a
pure neutral would not have a complement. It would be grey, but
these casual mixtures are often not balanced well enough to be merely
grey. Some look brown. These mixtures are artistically useful, but
they may be hard to understand and categorize.

How can brown be learned experientially?
I often ask art students to experiment scientifically. They make
visual notes (color swatches). They see who can match a brown by
experimentation and have a record of how they did it. One way is to
give the students each a small piece of paper cut from a sheet the
teacher has previously painted brown. Allow them only primaries, and
black and white paint. To make it easier, I tell them to try adding
a bit of black to each of the secondary colors until they "discover"

How to make the brown learning aide? What is the complement?
I see brown as one of several common color names that do not
represent fully saturated color. Pink is a tint of red. Lavender is
tint of purple. Maroon is a shade of red, and so on. To make the
example brown, I make a medium orange (not too red and not too
yellow). I add a small touch of black to desaturate it. This
"brown" is "a shade of orange". If some white is added it will not
be as dark and can becomes tan. Since the brown is based on orange,
one could argue that brown is a complement of blue.

What is an Afterimage?
When the color receptors in the eye are bombarded by a saturated
color, the visual system adjusts and compensates. When looking away
at a white wall, the altered visual system takes a second or so to
normalize and an opposite (complementary) afterimage appears
momentarily. Afterimages will be less obvious from "color" that is
not fully saturated (like brown) because the physiology of color
vision does not need to adjust and compensate much for color that is
desaturated. However, we also see afterimages after gazing at strong
black and white contrasts. Black becomes white in the afterimage.
Hence, a dark brown may even create a very pale blue afterimage.

Of course there is nothing more "artistic" about a brown that is
based on orange, but this helps place brown in the scheme of things.
A more advanced experiment might be, "How big is the brown family?
How many ways can you show me that brown can be made? None of them
may look like the others, but they all must be brown." This would
not be as scientific, so give each variation a poetic name.

Hope this helps clear these muddy issues a bit.

Marvin Bartel