Synthetic discriminant functions (SDF’s) are an effective tool for pattern-recognition applications. However, their experimental implementation is difficult because of the difficulty in writing full complex modulation functions onto spatial light modulators (SLM’s) with restricted coding domains. Iterative methods are required for the implementation of SDF filters in real SLM’s. A great deal of experimental research has been done with phase-only filters because they can be successfully implemented with liquid-crystal SLM’s. We have recently introduced a technique for encoding arbitrary amplitude information onto the phase-only filter, thus allowing us to encode an arbitrary complex function onto a phase-only SLM. We apply this technique to the generation of arbitrary complex SDF filters, thus avoiding the necessity of iterative algorithms. We examine the discrimination capabilities of fully complex SDF filters designed with different parameters and constraints. Experimental results obtained with liquid-crystal SLM’s are included. © 2000 Optical Society of America.