color theory

Compliments for Complementary Colors?

Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors

Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors

It’s all about the color wheel

If you don’t remember from grade school science, complementary colors are color pairs directly opposite each other on the color wheel (red/green, violet/yellow and so on). Put together, each appears more vivid than it does on its own. For some people that’s all they need to know! Bring on the bright blue and orange - everywhere! For the rest of us though, a little zing in a sea of calm may be a bit harder to achieve. Here are a few other ways to use complementary colors.

1. Change the saturation

Not everything has to be dialed into pure, paintbox tones. Pastels (or darker shades) can still play off each other. Here is yellow and violet - but with a lot of white for a more Easter/Spring effect:

pastel complementary colors

2. Get color mixing for more sophisticated combinations

The color wheel, like the spectrum, is really infinite, limited only to the colors humans can see (about 7 million). Despite that you’ve probably not seen too many color wheels that go beyond the tertiary level (what I have at the top) due to space and layout. School lessons usually stick to just primary and secondary colors, figuring they’ve made their point and you have those color crayons. And like above if red and green are your thing you don’t need more. Dial it into blue-violet or yellow-green or even yellow-yellow-green and you’ll start to get some more unusual and interesting combinations. The math is still the same though. If you’re going to use yellow-yellow-green then you’ll need to pair it with violet-red-violet. Below is red-violet with yellow-green. The exact same shades as in the larger circles in the color wheel above.

tertiary complementary colors

3. Play with the balance of the two colors.

The simple design above has more red-violet than yellow-green. Compare that with below which has increased the amount of yellow-green.

balance of complementary colors

4. Add neutrals

The above are simple geometric designs created to get across a point (but if you love them, by all means let me know!) You can still use complementary colors in a more subtle and relaxed way. Here the red-violet moves up into the design and a whole lot of neutral (in this case white) is introduced.


Subtle complementary colors

It’s a totally different look, isn’t it? Whichever your favorite, I hope you’ve gotten a few ideas on how to use complementary colors to enhance your environment or your wardrobe. You can be subtle or bold, bright or subdued, it’s just a matter of letting the color wheel guide you.

Please share your thoughts and your favorite color combinations in the comments. I’d love to know what draws your eye the most.