Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors – What Are Complementary Colors?

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What are complementary colors in art? As we can observe on the color wheel, complementary colors are located directly opposite one another. In this article, we will examine the complementary color theory and look at a few complementary color examples. Having a better understanding of complementary colors will go a long way to improving your art or photography.



What Are Complementary Colors in Art?

Colors have a strong psychological impact on the human brain. Think of the color blue, for example. What comes to mind when you picture the color in your head? Maybe you envisage open clear skies, or flowing rivers, something calm and peaceful. These associations might differ slightly from individual to individual, yet, every color has been shown to create an emotional or mental reaction in the viewer, and grasping the concept of complementary color theory will enable you to know which combinations of colors will have the most desirable effect on your audience.

Complementary Color Theory


Complementary Color Theory

Since the days of antiquity, people have noticed how colors seem to look different when placed next to or mixed with other colors. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for instance, noted that gold shone greater when it was painted next to blue, as opposed to when it was painted next to white in the 13th century. In the 15th century, Leon Battista Alberti noted that certain pairings of colors produced harmonious results, and Leonardo da Vinci pointed out that the greatest combinations were those colors directly opposed to each other.

They all had varying theories as to why they were complementary colors, but it would only be in the 18th century that there was finally a scientific explanation. Isaac Newton was the first person to develop a color wheel system in the early 1700s, creating a circle that contained seven colors. He noted that the colors opposite each other generated the most contrast, such as blue and red. In the years that followed further colors would be added to the circle by combining the primary and secondary colors that already existed, resulting in a total of 12 hues across the color wheel spectrum.

Color theory also contains other aspects such as the lightness or darkness of a color, or the color’s values. White or black can be used to soften or darken a hue, or gray can be added to lessen the intensity or brightness of a color. The tones, shades, and tints that can be created with these combinations add even more potential colors to the color wheel. An artist can create a specific scheme by applying color theory, such as a palette that just involves various shades or tints of one color, known as a monochromatic scheme. Or they could create an analogous color palette using the color wheel, complementary colors that are located next to each other such as orange, red, and yellow would be an example of an analogous color scheme.


The Color Wheel

In the color wheel, colors are arranged in a spectrum according to their specific wavelengths. Within a color wheel, the interconnected relationships between various primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, are depicted geometrically. By using blue, red, and yellow in various combinations, we can create a range of secondary colors, and by mixing primary and secondary colors we can create tertiary colors.

Color Wheel Complementary Colors


Complementary Color Examples

Harmony can be created in your art by choosing colors that complement each other well. To locate the complementing color, simply look at the color wheel and see which hue is located directly opposite your first chosen color. By using complementary colors in art, your images will pop more and look brighter due to the high contrast of the colors. A few complementary color examples are green and red, purple and yellow, blue and orange, and magenta and green.

Complementary color examples in a real-life can be seen in the clothing of sports teams, who often combine complementary colors to make a bold statement that stands out.


Red and Green

Red and green is a great combination due to the natural feeling of the green and the fiery warmness of the red. This would be a perfect combo for a sunset landscape painting. The flag of Hungary is green and red.

ColorHex CodeRGB CodeColor
Red#FF0000100, 0, 0

Complementary Colors Examples


Blue and Orange

Blue and orange is an interesting combination too. They are often used next to each other for great contrasting effects on movie posters.

The flag of Armenia is blue and orange.

ColorHex CodeRGB CodeColor
Blue#0000FF0, 0, 255
Orange#FFA500100, 64, 0


Purple and Yellow

Purple and yellow are quite a funky combination. Some modern living room design feature this combination. It is also the colors featured on the inters pride flag.

ColorHex CodeRGB CodeColor

Purple Complementary Colors


Color Psychology

There is a psychological power behind colors that can be utilized if understood correctly. We know that red means stop, and green means go. These complementing colors are found in many product designs, with buttons that change from red to green to indicate if there is power or not. In the color wheel, the various colors of the spectrum can be divided into warm and cool colors which also have certain associations attached to them.

The color red might make you think of anger, the sun, and passion, for example, which are all warm feelings or objects.

Conversely, blue might make you think of the ocean, something calm and cool. That is why all products contain certain color combinations which impart a particular feeling – they say that up to 90% of our decision-making processes when buying a product are based on its color! For example, studies have shown that people associate the color red with speed, they associate blue with feelings of safety, and it was discovered that products that are orange in color are generally considered to be of inferior quality.

What Are Complementary Colors

Keep in mind that the way we perceive color can change based on the color that is next to it. This was the case with French dye makers who kept on getting complaints that their black seemed to be inconsistent in color when used with various other colors. They realized that although the black color they produced was consistent, it was perceived to be a different tint when placed next to blue than it was when placed next to other colors.


Using Complementary Colors in Art and Commerce

When mixed together, complementary colors will neutralize each other, but if they are placed side by side then they intensify each other due to their contrast. We can observe complementary color examples in nature such as the oranges and blues of sunset, where the contrasting colors create an intense dramatic display of complementing hues. As you can tell from this example, complementary colors consist of one warm and one cool color. You can also mix complementary colors to create incredible shadow hues. If you prefer a toned-down palette that is not too bright, then simply add a bit of the contrasting color to the one you have applied.

You can then use black, gray, or white to control the tint and shade of your color.



Famous Complementary Color Examples

Complementary color examples can be seen everywhere around us. Just take a look at action or science fiction movie posters such as Star Wars, and you will see how the complementary effects of blue and red are put to effective use to portray the two polar extremes of the film’s characters. The use of complementary colors in art goes back much further than modern movie posters though. Many Master artists often employed contrasting colors in their works to great effects such as Vincent van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer, J. M. W. Turner, and many more.

Any color can appear different to the human eye depending on which color you place next to it. This effect is known as simultaneous contrast, and it is most effective when using complementary colors. The incredible contrast of the colors at the point where they intersect, causes the sensation of visual vibration, forcing the eye to move around the picture. Therefore, by knowing where and how to apply complementary colors, you can control where the viewer focuses their attention.

Complementary Colors in ArtCafé Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles (1888) by Vincent van Gogh;Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Complementary colors such as blue and orange can be used to create a warm and glowing atmosphere, such as in Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles (1888) by Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh knew how to use complementary colors to steer the viewer’s eye around the canvas, creating tension and movement. If we observe the windows right at the back of the painting, we can see that he has used a very saturated and warm orange color for the windows of the buildings, which are surrounded by walls of pure ultramarine blue, which creates a vivid contrast and sense warmth emanating from within the apartments.

The blue and orange arcs that form the cobbles in the foreground create a sense of movement and depth. The feeling of depth is created throughout the rest of the painting as well, with certain colors painted warm to jump out at the viewer, and others painted cool to recede into the background. In another of Van Gogh’s paintings, The Night Café, Arles (1888), he paired red and green to create a scene of a billiard room with a green billiard table and red walls which he felt was a combination of colors that expressed the worst desires of humanity.

He used particularly bright shades of colors, creating an almost sickly and jarring combination, but that’s what he intended.

Of course, one can also use more subdued shades of complementary colors to create a more harmonious image. For example, Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1660) displays the use of a more subtle combination of complementary colors known as split complements. These are achieved by picking a color and then using it in conjunction with a color neighboring its direct complementary color. So, let us take blue, for instance: we know that the color directly opposite blue on the color wheel is orange. But, instead of using orange, we will use the color next to it, which would be a yellowish orange.

Art Complementary ColorsSlave Ship (1840) by J. M. W. Turner;J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This is exactly what Vermeer did in his painting, as can be seen in the milkmaid’s blue skirt and the yellow-orange color of her top. The juxtaposition creates a pleasantly harmonious effect and draws the eye to the orange jug which acts as the main focus of the painting. You can also use muted cool tones and vibrant warm tones to create dramatic landscape paintings such as can be seen in J. M. W. Turner’s Slave Ship (1840). In the painting, we can see how the warm reds of the sunset are brought forward in contrast to the muted blue background. Split complementary colors can also be achieved by using three colors in a painting. This is achieved by picking a color and then locating the two colors on either side of the directly contrasting color.


As we have learned today, complementary colors can be used to great effect in art and design. It can also be used in fashion and home decor. By having a better grasp of the colors that complement each other, we can create either vivid or subtle combinations that enhance the feeling of cohesion and harmony in our works. Learning how to apply complementary colors in your own art is very simple: Just look at the color wheel and play around with pairing together colors that are positioned directly opposite each other. Or for a more subtle approach, pick a color right next to the one you have chosen. By doing this your works will take on the same feeling of balance and cohesion as the Masters themselves. 



Frequently Asked Questions


What Are Complementary Colors?

If you look at the color wheel, complementary colors are those that are positioned directly opposite each other. Based on how the color spectrum is laid out in a circular manner on the color wheel, one of those colors will always be on the warm side of the spectrum and the other will always be on the cool side of the spectrum. However, you do not always have to choose the color directly opposite the one you would like to use. You can also pick a color immediately to the left or right of the color opposite the one you would like to use.


What Is Complementary Color Theory?

People have been analyzing how colors appear to look different when put next to or paired with other colors throughout history. In the 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas, for one, found that gold appeared brighter when painted next to blue than when painted next to white. Leon Battista Alberti observed in the 15th century that some color combinations generated harmonious outcomes, while Leonardo da Vinci observed that the best combinations were those colors that were directly opposite to each other. Colors will be perceived slightly differently depending on what colors are placed next to them. This was noticed by dye manufacturers that were told that their black was a different shade from one piece of fabric to the next. This baffled them until they realized that it was not the color itself that had changed, but how it looked when it was next to blue, for example.


Are There Complementary Color Examples?

You can easily locate complementary colors yourself by just looking at which colors are located opposite each other. Don’t forget that you can create a more subtle variation of contrasting colors called split complementary colors by using the color that is the neighbor of the color directly opposite the one you would like to use. A common example of these colors would be blue and yellow-orange, as seen in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1660).

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