What Are Complementary Colors? Learn How to Use Them the Right Way

Complementary color wheel with orange, red, purple, blue, green and yellow colors

Whether you are an artist, a designer, or any other person that works closely with color, understanding what complementary colors are and how they work will make your job so much easier. Once you understand basic color theory and how it relates to complementary colors, you will be able to pair certain hues and shades together perfectly.

What Are Complementary Colors?

In order to understand exactly what complementary colors are, you need to think about where each color is placed on the color wheel. Complementary colors are found opposite each other. For example, the complementary color to red is green. Complementary colors can be used together to make each color look brighter, or they can be blended in order to create a shadow effect. They can even be mixed for a neutral hue.

Basic Complementary Colors

Illustration of complementary color scheme wheel

Now that you know complementary colors are found opposite each other on the color wheel, you can begin to explore exactly what they are. Basically, complementary colors consist of a single primary color and one secondary color. Secondary colors are created when you mix together two primary colors. They are found on the color wheel between each of the primary colors. For example, the complementary color to blue is orange. Orange is made by mixing equal parts of red and yellow together.

The most basic of all complementary colors include the three primary colors and the colors located across from them.

  • Red and Green
  • Blue and Orange
  • Yellow and Purple
Colorful wooden picks painted in primary and secondary colors

Tertiary colors are created by mixing together one secondary color with one primary color. To find the complementary color of a tertiary color, simply look for the tertiary color directly across from it.

  • Yellow-Orange and Blue-Violet
  • Red-Orange and Blue-Green
  • Red-Violet and Yellow-Green

You can continue to divide the color wheel into an infinite amount of colors, but one thing always remains the same: regardless of the tone or shade of a color, the complementary color will always be directly across from it. Follow this rule, and you will be able to pair up complementary colors that suit one another perfectly.

Making Colors Pop

Interior design in modern style using complementary colors with yellow dresser and purple wall

Every set of complementary colors will contain one warm color and one cool color. Cool colors include blue, green, and purple, while warm colors are orange, red, and yellow. Using a warm color to complement a cool color is referred to as a simultaneous contrast. It is the highest contrast found on a color wheel.

A simultaneous contrast allows both colors to look brighter and instantly get your eye’s attention. It is a natural illusion that happens whenever complementary colors are placed side by side. Artists use complimentary colors next to each other when painting a vivid sunset. Interior designers use them when they want to add energy to a space. You have probably used them yourself during the holidays when many decorative themes include red and green together. This method is so effective that most designers will limit complementary colors to only the accent pieces in a room, in order not to overpower everything else.

While using complementary colors can be very effective, the fact that complementary colors do make each other look brighter and more vivid can actually cause the two colors to appear to clash. Because the two colors are similar in strength, while being polar opposites, they compete with one another in certain situations. The result can seem quite garish.

You can avoid this clash in colors by simply using one of them as the dominant color. The second complementary color will then become an accent color to the first. Use the dominant color in larger areas and the accent color in smaller doses. This creates a balance in strength, allowing the eye to take it all in without feeling overwhelmed.

Mixing Complementary Colors Together

Poppy field and mountains oil painting with red and green colors

When it comes to paint, mixing complementary colors together can help you create some pretty interesting effects. Look to any hue’s complementary color when you begin experimenting. The two colors can be the perfect new shade when trying to create a dynamic shadow.

Complementary colors can also make a hue a little less vibrant when blended together. For example, tone down a bright red by adding a bit of green. The result is a beautiful burnt sienna. The more green you add, the darker it turns out. Mix these two colors in equal portions and you will have a dark brown with warm tones. Manipulate these colors further by adding black, white, or gray.

Don’t be afraid to play around a bit when it comes to complementary colors. Experiment by mixing paints and making swatches to see just how many colors you can come up with. As long as you stick to the main color’s complementary color on the color wheel, you will most likely enjoy the results you achieve.

So the next time you are looking for a way to make two colors work beautifully together, consider complementary colors. Use their contrast to create vivid moods, or use them as the perfect accent colors for any painting or design plan that needs an extra pop of color. As long as the two colors you use are opposite one another on the color wheel, you are guaranteed some pretty impressive results.