What are Complementary Colors?

Are you working on a design project in which you want to use colors with their full power? Do you need a vibrant, dramatic and powerful feel? Then, welcome to the world of complementary colors. When used effectively, such sets of colors are guaranteed to give your project a striking look. So what are complementary colors? How do you create a complementary color scheme? What are the basic rules for using complementary colors?

Definition of Complementary Colors

In the most basic sense, complementary colors are any two colors that are placed directly opposite one another on the color wheel. This is why they are also called opposite colors. When paired, these colors create the highest contrast for each other. When mixed together, they cancel each other out.

How to Create a Complementary Color Scheme

A complementary color scheme is basically created by pairing any two opposite colors on a given color system. Therefore, any two opposite colors provide a complementary color scheme. However, designers usually take this rule to a higher level, using tones, tints, and shades of the selected complementary colors to achieve a more sophisticated palette. 

Pairs of Most Commonly Used Complementary Colors

An important note is that the pairs of complementary colors depend on the color theory/color system that the designer uses. 

In the RGB (additive) or the CMY (subtractive) color model, the common complementary colors are as follows:

In the traditional RYB color model, the complementary color pairs are as follows:

Features of Complementary Colors

When designing with complementary colors, you will notice a few common features in relation to their reaction to one another:

What Are Split Complementary Colors?

Designers sometimes want to avoid the tension of complementary colors but still need to convey a pleasing contrast. This is when the split-complementary color scheme comes into the picture. Being a variation of the complementary color scheme, the split-complementary uses not the exact opposite of a base color but the two adjacent colors to its complement. Therefore, in split-complementary, one base color and two secondary (those adjacent to the opposite of the base) colors are used. 

Benefits of Complementary Colors

To state the obvious, complementary colors receive their power from the contrast they inherently own. When placed next to one another, they intensify the other; a visual effect sometimes called ‘simultaneous contrast’. Because they are so eye-catching, pairs of complementary colors are very commonly used in logos, branding, websites, posters and store displays. For example, in websites or infographics, they might be used next to each other for highlighting and ‘popping’ important information. In retail stores, they might be applied to highlight a new collection among other products.

A practical use for such colors are life vests. As orange and blue are complementaries, they reflect the highest contrast and visibility for those watching out from ships or planes.

Tips for Using Complementary Colors

If not used effectively, the most powerful feature of a color scheme might become its weakest aspect. For monochromatic colors for example, a lack of visible contrast may lead to a too monotonous look. In terms of complementary colors, the same is true for too much contrast.

Using exact opposites with the same saturation without any space or a transitional color in between could create an overpowering and tiring look. In order to avoid this, you should create a balance by making one of the colors more dominant than the other. You may try the following: 


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