Master the Illusion of Brilliance | Juxtapose Color

by Michael Chesley Johnson

In the October 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, Michael Chesley Johnson shows how to master the illusion of brilliance.

Choose Complements
Just as the manipulation of values can accentuate light, the juxtaposing of colors can dramatically increase the illusion of brilliance.The Impressionists were masters at creating a sense of light by using color cleverly. If you examine their paintings, you’ll see that the trick really comes down to the effective use of complements and near complements. Place a small light spot against a dark, complementary color field, such as light orange against deep blue, and the effect can be stunning (below).

Of course, you won’t see clean-edged juxtapositions of complementary colors in nature. If you look at a streetlight, you’ll see a halo around it. This is caused by the diffusion or scattering of light in the air. This halo is usually slightly cooler than the light source. For example, the red-orange taillight of a car will be accompanied by a reddish halo. Put this combination against a background of dark blue-green, and that taillight will really glow. Paint a silvery, greenish moon with a somewhat cooler, blue-green halo and set them in a dark, red-violet sky, and you’ll think you’re looking at the real thing. The halo is key in painting realistic bright lights.

Sometimes, using an exact complement for the color field behind a light source looks garish. With a near-complement, you can still achieve brilliance that won’t look as cartoonish. What if you don’t see the complement or the near-complement in the real-life color field? It doesn’t matter. Put it in anyway. You’ll be surprised at how well complementary coloring works. By the way, you don’t have to fill the entire color field with the complementary background—just a swath of the complement around the halo is all you need.

For a finishing touch, think of the laundry detergent slogan about getting whites “whiter than white.” You can do that with paint, too. A tiny bit of cadmium yellow light added to white makes the white seem brighter. The reason for this is that white is a cool color. The yellow warms it up, and our minds see warms as brighter than cools. Use this technique for a strikingly brilliant glow.

The demonstrations Taillight (below) and Moon (below) show how these complementary color techniques play out with both warm and cool light sources.


This demonstration shows how to render a warm light source, in this case a car taillight. All paints are Gamblin Artists Colors.

I painted the background with a dark mixture of phthalo blue and cadmium yellow light.

For the base of the taillight, I used a midlight mixture of cadmium red light and cadmium yellow deep, blending the edge slightly over the dark background to create a halo.

I brightened the center of the taillight with a light mixture of cadmium orange and titanium white. Finally, I added a dot of almost pure titanium white mixed with a bit of cadmium yellow light.


This demonstration shows how to render a cool light source, in this case a full moon. All paints are Gamblin Artists Colors.

I painted the background with a dark mixture of alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue.

For the moon I used a midlight mixture of phthalo blue, cadmium yellow light and titanium white, blending the edge slightly to create a halo.

I brightened the moon with a blend of radiant green and titanium white. Then I added a dot of titanium white containing a bit of cadmium yellow light.

Click here to find this article and more in the October 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


Accentuate Bright Light | Compress Your Value Scale

Painting the Daylight | Complementary Colors

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See an award-winning artists’ approach to landscapes. Click here for a link to a free preview of Color Harmony for Luminous Pastels with Colleen Howe from


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