What are Complementary Colors? (Examples and How to Use)

This is a guide covering complementary colors.

Complementary colors are all around us in photos, movies, and even company logos and we might not even know it.

Using complementary colors is a great technique to know for any artist or creator.

With all that being said, let’s dive in!

What are Complementary Colors?

Complementary colors are hues and tones that exist opposite each other on the color wheel.

The color wheel dates back to the eighteenth century but is still widely in use by artists today.

complementary colors color wheel
complementary colors of red and green

This color wheel defines red, yellow, and blue as primary colors, and secondary colors as green, orange, and purple. (Maloney, Tim (2009).

Complementary colors are usually made up of one primary color and one secondary color, but could also be two secondary colors that are opposite each other on the wheel.

When mixed together, complementary colors ‘cancel each other out by creating a gray or tonal color, like white or black.

They generally contrast with each other, being opposites on the color wheel, and create a striking effect when used in painting, decorating, and art.

They are usually also contrasting in tone – one warm, and one cool. This brings out the brightest qualities in each color, making them stand out against each other.

This technique of using complementary colors is called “simultaneous contrast” and is used to great effect by artists and designers alike.

Another technique for using complementary colors is a split complementary color scheme. In addition to the base color, this scheme uses the two colors directly adjacent to the complementary color.

This is a good scheme to use if you are just starting to experiment with color, as the contrasting effect will be less harsh with a split complementary scheme.

It also gives more variation in the color scheme by using three or four instead of only two colors.

What are Examples of Complementary Colours?

Picture the color wheel: a circular wheel of colors from red, all the way through the rainbow to blue and purple.

Whichever point you choose on the color wheel, the opposite point of that color will be its complementary.

color wheel example
color wheel

For instance, the complementary color of red (a primary color) is green (a secondary color), made by mixing the two primary colors blue and yellow.

Blue and orange are other examples of complementary colors, as well as yellow and purple.

These are the basic pairs, but the color wheel can be broken down into infinite color gradients, so the complementary colors are endless.

A lighter, yellow-orange shade like tangerine will be complementary to a darker, inky shade of blue-purple like indigo, and so on.

The basic rule applies that no matter what shade or color you begin with, the complementary color will always be opposite it on the color wheel.

What is the Purpose of Complementary Colours?

Colors that contrast each other are used by artists, designers, interior decorators, and many others to create striking and interesting color effects.

Complementary colors make each other stand out, or ‘pop’, drawing more attention to certain things or areas of a piece of art, an advertisement, or even the interior of a room.

complementary colors example
complementary colors of orange and blue in this photo

Complementary colors are also used to create optical effects, as it has been noted for centuries that colors take on different qualities when placed next to each other.

Leonardo da Vinci noticed that the best harmonies were created when using colors “exactly opposed”, and later artists used this theory to invigorate their work with stronger color effects.

Placing complementary colors next to each other makes both colors appear brighter and more vibrant, which in turn enriches the work overall.

How to Use Complementary Colors in Your Own Art?

You can easily apply the rules of complementary colors yourself to create the kind of effects described above.

Here are some simple steps to identify which colors will work best for your purposes:

1. Find a Color Wheel

Good examples can be found easily online and can be as simple or as extensive as you like.

The more color gradients that are shown on the color wheel, the more options for different shades, and complementary shades, you will have to work with.

Sometimes it can be better to start with fewer colors, and gradually add more as you become more comfortable with using complementary colors in your art.

2. Choosing a Primary Color

Pick the color on the color wheel you would like to start with. For example, if you are painting a landscape, you might like to start with the primary color blue, for the sky.

This could be any shade of blue that exists on the color wheel.

Choosing the right colors for you requires some creativity and a bit of experimentation, so it might not always go to plan on the first try.

Keep using different colors and hues until you find the one that works for you.

3. Find the Complementary Color

This will be the color directly opposite the first color you have chosen on the wheel.

You may also want to experiment with a split complementary scheme, and instead of using the exact complementary color to your primary, you can use the two colors directly adjacent to the complementary.

4. Experiment

Start using the two or three complementary colors you have chosen in your artwork.

They can be used side by side as shadows, or you can use the colors to create contrast in the work, like creamy yellow clouds against a dusky purple sky.

You can use these contrasts to create strong moods or accent certain areas of your work.

To further explore how to use complementary colors and the color wheel in general, we recommend this video by Sarah Renae Clark:

COLOR THEORY BASICS: Use the Color Wheel & Color Harmonies to Choose Colors that Work Well Together

Famous Works of Art That Use Complementary Colours

It can be useful to look at some famous examples of artists that use complementary colors to impressive effect.

One of the most famous artists to do this is Vincent Van Gogh, especially in his Self Portrait (1889).

van gogh complementary colors

In this painting, he cleverly draws out the contrast between his reddish-orange hair and the greenish-blue background.

This makes both colors brighter and creates a vivid, alluring image that draws the viewer in.

By the same token, Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) contrasts a bright orange sun against the blue of the sky and water.

Not only did this painting give a name to the Impressionist movement of the nineteenth century, but it also serves as a poignant example of the use of complementary colors.

Monet had read about color theory and spent a lot of time trying to incorporate these concepts into his work.

Henri Matisse was another artist to use complementary colors to create dazzling visual results, such as his portrait of André Detrain (1905).

In this portrait, Matisse uses a green shade for Derain’s mustache, eyebrows, and hairline, which seems an odd choice, but when complemented by the red used for his hat, creates a strong visual effect.

Matisse was often criticized for using colors that appeared unnatural, but his intention was to adjust his complementary color scheme to create maximum intensity.

In doing so he was able to capture the appearance of sunlight on Derain’s face that casts a heavy shadow down one side.

Final Remarks

Complementary colors are an important and significant tool for any artist wanting to create strong visual effects.

Understanding the color wheel, and how to identify complementary colors on either side of this wheel, allows for endless combinations of different colors and hues.

Split complementary color schemes can also be used to create softer contrast, by identifying the two colors on either side of a color’s complimentary.

Using color in this way can evoke a certain mood in artwork or even in the design of a room, as the colors act on each other when placed side by side.

They appear brighter and more vibrant when they are complementary, and add intensity to the artwork.

Since the nineteenth century, artists have made use of developing color theory including complimentary colors to enrich their work, including Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh.

These artists identified the potential for colors to create a mood and tell a story, simply in the way they were used and placed.

Post-Impressionist artists like Henri Matisse took this even further in the twentieth century, juxtaposing complementary colors to make an impact and amplify the intensity of both colors.

Although at first the science behind complementary colors, and the striking effects they create might be daunting for budding artists, there are some simple steps to incorporating complementary colors in your own work.

Using the color wheel and understanding the simple rule that complementary colors are always opposite each other can offer some amazing results, and all it takes is some creativity and experimentation.