Complements Give Compliments!

 Henri Matisse, French Artist 1869-1954

“Boy with Butterfly Net” 1907, 69 3/4 X 45 15/16 oil on canvas

20th Century “Fauvism”

Collection: Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund


Visiting Italy in 1907, the French artist Henri Matisse was deeply impressed by the frescoes of Giotto, the 14th-century artist who ushered in the Italian Renaissance. Matisse especially liked Giotto’s simplified volumes and restricted primary colors:

 Notice the similarity of colors between the two masterpieces?

This is one of Giotto’s scenes in the Arena Chapel from the life of Christ called the Lamentation. This tells the story of the moment after Christ has been removed from the cross, when his followers gather around his body and mourn his death. Mary Magdalene is the woman with long red hair at Christ’s feet, and his mother Mary is holding him in her arms.  Giotto’s work is considered “Pre-Renaissance.”

 What colors do you predominantly see?

(Red, green and blue.)

Split Complement

This is called a “split complement” color scheme.  A split complement is the combination of one hue plus eht hues on each side of its complement.  When I introduce complements to my students, I always say complements REACH across the wheel and “compliment” each other, “Boy, you sure look nice today!”

As you can see, Matisse’s visit to Italy inspired him to set about making Fauvism more dramatic and monumental. In “Boy with Butterfly Net,” he created a sparse landscape composed of flat, green land and similarly flat blue sky with a single figure dressed in a lighter value of green.  This figure, the boy in his painting, was actually modeled after his friend, the nephew of Leo and Gertrud Stein (just a little fun trivia!)


1.  What do you see in this painting? (A boy.)

2.  What is he holding?  (A butterfly net.)

3.  What colors do you see in this painting? (Look on the color wheel!)

4.  Are these colors across the color wheel from one another?  (Yes.)  This is called a “complement.”  When two colors are across the wheel from one another, we call them complementary colors.   We actually have a “split complement” in this painting.  A split complement, as we mentioned, is the combination of one hue plus the hues on each side if of its complement as you can see in the color wheel example above.  

5.  What is the boy wearing?  (Shirt, shorts, sandals and a necktie.)  What color is the necktie?  (red.)  What else is red in the painting?  (The road, his hair.)

6.  Notice how the road goes up at a diagonal and is parallel to the pole and net?  This diagnoal give s us visual interest compared to a horizontal  path and leads our eye into the picture plane.

Reinforcing content:

a) Have the students determine the split complement of yellow.  They may need to refer to the color wheel.  (Answer:  red-violet, blue-violet.)

b) Direct students to draw line contour drawings of this simple drawing by Matisse or a similar simple landscape, either from direct observation, experience or their imagination.  Make 3 photocopies of each student’s drawing and have them color all three pictures using a different set of copmlementary colors for each one.  Then have the students compare and contrast their three drawings and discuss.

c)  How does the “feeling” of the scene change as a result of the different color combinations?  Which do you like best and why?

d)  Learn more about  either online or at the library about the life of Matisse and write a short essay on his life.

Stay tuned, our next blog will be a super cool project based on the work of Matisse!

Until then, keep it colorful



Laura Bird Miller 🙂

For a simple lesson on complements for K-6, go to :