What Are Split-Complementary Colors? Best Ways to Use This Color Scheme

Using the split-complementary color wheel to find matching colors

Although colors are a part of our daily lives, there are many variations to them and their uses that not everyone may take advantage of it. Take split-complementary colors, for example. There are many fun and interesting ways you can use them to spruce up your painting, decorating skills, graphic designs, and more.

Let’s take a closer look at the split-complementary color scheme to help you understand what it is and the best way you can use the colors involved.

What Is a Split-Complementary Color Scheme?

A split-complementary color scheme is known to be a variation of a complementary color scheme. But rather than being a mixture of two colors, split-complementary colors contain a combination of three colors.

In order to get a split-complementary color, you have to mix together one primary color and two colors adjacent to its complement. While complementary colors tend to look dull, split-complementary colors are used well for contrast purposes.

How to Determine Which Colors Are Split-Complementary

Illustration of complementary and split-complementary color wheels

The best way to find out what colors are split-complementary is to look at the color wheel. A typical wheel contains 12 main colors including primary, secondary and tertiary colors.

When figuring out split-complementary colors, you want to start out with a base color. From there, you combine it with two colors that sit directly adjacent to its complementary color without choosing the complementary color itself.

To use an example, let’s say you have orange. You’ll combine it with blue-purple and blue-green to get a split-complementary color.

Split-Complementary Color Schemes

Split-complementary color scheme wheel with combination of 3 colors

There are 12 basic split-complementary color schemes you can work with:

Red + Blue-Green + Yellow-Green

Orange + Blue-Purple + Blue-Green

Red-Orange + Blue + Green

Red-Purple + Yellow + Green

Yellow-Orange + Purple + Blue

Yellow-Green + Red + Purple

Yellow + Blue-Purple + Red-Purple

Green + Red-Orange + Red-Purple

Blue + Red-Orange + Yellow-Orange

Blue-Green + Orange + Red

Blue-Purple + Yellow + Orange

Purple + Yellow-Orange + Yellow-Green

Best Ways to Use Split-Complementary Colors

Split complementary color matching palette from traditional sandstone houses with red terracotta tile roofs under blue sky

Since split-complementary colors contain a mixup of colors that don’t initially appear to work well together, you might fall into the trap of creating something that’s busy rather than effective.

As you’re figuring out how to incorporate this particular color scheme into your art, clothes, decorating, etc., it can be a good idea to look at which color in the combination is the strongest or the most dominant one.

So, if you have yellow, blue-purple, and red-purple, the latter pair will be dominant over yellow. You may want to consider utilizing more of those two instead.

Say you are painting a room in your house. Much of the focus can be on using a mixture of blue-purple and red-purple. As for yellow, it can work well as an accent color. Perhaps you can use the hue on the trim of the wall. Or maybe you can use it in terms of décor added to the room from wall hangings or furniture.

You can also use a split-complementary color scheme to spruce up a child’s playroom or bedroom. Let’s take blue as our base color, and when you use the likes of red-orange and yellow-orange, you can give the room a brighter, more open appearance. This can work out well through wallpaper, paint or other items placed in the room.

Split-complementary colors also work well when it comes to quilts to create a pattern that boldly stands out. You may even want to use them when coming up with a floral arrangement by utilizing various flowers to create a beautiful display.

This color scheme might work exceptionally well when it comes to artwork. Whether you’re creating a portrait or landscape piece, careful use of split-complementary colors can add the right amount of contrast you need to bring more life to your work.

Cautions About Using Split-Complementary Colors

Megaphone in yellow-orange, purple and blue split-complementary colors

As touched on before, split-complementary colors can create something that’s too loud and over-the-top to the point that your original color scheme becomes lost.

What you can do to avoid that pitfall is to not overdo it with the one hue that stands out in the wrong way, compared to the other two colors that seem to naturally match better with one another. You don’t want to lose the overall distinction between them.

Thankfully, it does take a bit of effort to use split-complementary colors in the wrong way. It’s why it’s so common for beginning artists to focus on this color scheme since it’s rather easy to utilize.

So, once you find your split-complementary color scheme that best suits your needs, take care of which pair matches better and from there, you can steadily add in the other color to build off them and create that much-needed contrast.