What is complementary color?
Imagine a room with invigorating, energetic colors. You might think of warm colors, like reds or oranges. Or you might think of bright blues. But one way to make colors really pop is to use them in specific combinations, called complements.
Complementary colors are those of the “opposite” hue. When placed next to each other, they tend to appear brighter than they are, and they produce pleasing contrasts. Often they are thought of as those that are across from each other on a color wheel. That isn’t the technical definition, because of course it depends on the color wheel being ordered properly, but it’s useful to remember.
Complementary color is not the last word when it comes to contrast. Many contrasting color combinations are not complements. But complements are a mainstay of the way that artists and designers look at color.
Here are some popular complementary color combinations:
Blue and orange
This is a very striking and popular color combination because in addition to being complementary, blue and orange also represent very cool and warm colors. This leads to a brilliant contrast.
Blue and orange art prints and posters can be found to match many themes, because these colors are common in nature as well as urban areas. They are also very common on movie posters.
Decorating with blue and orange art prints creates a striking room that does not overwhelm with either warm or cool tones.
Yellow and violet
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Red and green
In Western society, red and green together has a “Christmas” association, but this is avoidable by not using a bright red with an “evergreen” color. There are lots of other shades to choose from, for example:
Here’s an example of using low saturation colors to get around the popular association of red and green. Some people argue that complementary color only applies to high-saturation colors, but we can fudge a bit:
Another tactic is to head away from the direct complementary pair, in both directions. Moving the red a touch toward violet and the green a touch toward teal means you’re no longer looking at a complementary pair, but it can work without having any holiday association:
White and black?
Technically, white and black aren’t even colors, so they can’t be complementary colors. But when we’re talking about decorating, what matters is how things look, rather than the exact science, so it’s useful to include white and black because of their extreme contrast.
Decorating with only complementary colors is not the only way. Many popular and attractive color combinations are not complements, including orange and green, red and blue, and blue and green. And neutral tones are mostly left out of the picture when it comes to complementary colors. Still, understanding complementary colors can help you create a strikingly designed room.