What Are Complementary Colors?

Complementary colors are two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel. Designers and artists use complementary colors to achieve a striking contrast. Compared to other color schemes, complementary colors boast the most significant divergence in visual presentation.

The Basics of Complementary Colors

Complementary colors generate contrast, evoking a dramatic impression in painting, decor, and art. Color theory concepts guide color selection and blending to achieve harmonious visual effects.

Complementary Colors

While this is an abstract notion, its purpose is to quantify colors for designers in visual arts. The origins of color theory trace back to the 17th century. Sir Isaac Newton utilized the color spectrum to map all hues into a color wheel.

The color wheel includes primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Primary colors are the building blocks that can’t be made by mixing other colors. Secondary colors are a blend of two primary colors. Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary and a secondary color.

Primary ColorSecondary ColorTertiary Color

Complementary colors consist of one primary color and one secondary color. They can also be two secondary colors lying opposite each other on the wheel.

When complementary colors are juxtaposed, they neutralize each other. As a result, they yield shades of gray or tonal colors like white and black.

How to Identify Complementary Colors on the Color Wheel

Identifying complementary colors involves grasping the interplay between colors and their opposites. Primary and secondary colors directly facing each other on the color wheel represent complementary pairs.

Here are some of the primary colors and their complementary colors in the color wheel:

Primary ColorDecimal Code (RGB)Hex CodeComplementary Color
Red(255, 0, 0)#FF0000Green
Orange(255, 165, 0)#FFA500Blue
Yellow(255, 255, 0)#FFFF00Purple
Green(0, 128, 0)#008000Red
Blue(0, 0, 255)#0000FFOrange
Purple(128, 0, 128)#800080Yellow

Below are some of the tertiary colors that lie on opposite sides of the wheel:

Secondary ColorDecimal Code (RGB)Hex CodeComplementary Color
Red-Orange(255, 83, 73)#FF5349Blue-Green
Yellow-Orange(255, 174, 66)#FFAE42Blue-Purple
Blue-Purple(138, 43, 226)#8A2BE2Yellow-Orange
Red-Purple(149, 53, 83)#953553Green-Yellow
Yellow-Green(154, 205, 50)#9ACD32Red-Purple
Blue-Green(13, 152, 186)#0D98BARed-Orange

How to Mix Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are pairs of warm and cool colors. Cool colors include blue, purple, and green, while warm colors are yellow, red, and orange. Blending a warm color with a cool one yields simultaneous contrast.

Simultaneous contrast, the highest contrast on the color wheel, emerges when two complementary colors are placed beside each other. This phenomenon creates enhanced brightness and captures the viewer’s attention.

Two models illustrate complementary colors:

  1. Additive Color Mixing: This digital model employs red, green, and blue (RGB) as primary colors. Complementary pairs include red and cyan, green and magenta, and blue and yellow.
  2. Subtractive Color Mixing: Traditional art and printing use the subtractive model. When complementary colors combine, they neutralize, yielding tones like grays and browns. Examples include red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple.

Mixing complementary colors yields effective shadows. You can adjust a primary color’s vividness by blending it with its complementary hue. Make sure to adhere to the color’s complementary counterpart on the color wheel for optimal results.

Famous Examples of Complementary Colors in Art

1. Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

“The Starry Night,” created in 1889, showcases his unique style and brilliant use of color, including complementary colors. Van Gogh employed a complementary color scheme to create a captivating and expressive composition. The dominant colors in the painting are vibrant blues and deep yellows.

Blue and yellow are complementary to each other on the color wheel. The swirling blue sky is the backdrop for the iconic cypress tree and the village below. Yellow stars and crescent moon complement the blue sky, enhancing celestial luminosity and creating a stark contrast.

2. Henri Matisse’s “The Dance”

Henri Matisse created two versions of “The Dance,” one in 1909 and another in 1910. Both versions depict figures engaged in a rhythmic and expressive dance. The painting’s contrasting colors contribute to its energetic and dynamic composition.

In the 1909 version, Matisse used a complementary color scheme of warm oranges and yellows against cool blues and greens. The figures in the foreground are painted in warm hues, while the background features cool blues and greens. The contrasting colors create a sense of movement and harmony within the composition.

The 1910 version of “The Dance” features a different color palette. Matisse incorporated a more extensive range of colors, including reds, pinks, blues, and greens. The variation in hues adds further complexity and visual interest to the painting.

3. Roy Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl”

Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl” showcases his skill in using complementary colors for visual impact. In “Drowning Girl,” Lichtenstein employs a complementary color scheme of vibrant red and cyan.

The red dominates the background, while cyan renders the girl’s figure. The strong contrast between these colors intensifies the emotional tension and drama in the scene.