How to Work With Complementary Colors

By Pauline Gill ; Updated September 15, 2017
Work With Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow are all complementary colors. They are called complementary because the two colors make each other stand out. When they are viewed together, they make people feel good, hence, marketers and advertisers rely heavily on the use of complementary colors. The color wheel is essential because it gives a visual of how shades of color affect each other. To work with complementary colors, use the color wheel as a guide. Whether you are creating a website, decorating your home or choosing your clothes, the color wheel will help.

Understand the color wheel. The color wheel is made up of 12 colors that are primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. Primary colors are the true colors: red, blue and yellow. Secondary colors are the mix of primary colors: orange, yellow, green and violet. Tertiary colors are the mix of primary and secondary colors: yellow-orange, red-violet, red-orange, blue-violet, blue-green and yellow-green. Complementary colors are the opposites on the color wheel; analogous are next to each other and work well together, but they don't offer contrast like complementary colors. Triad colors are three colors that form a triangle on the wheel.

Use complementary colors to design a website. Because complementary colors make people feel good, they are great choices for a website or any graphic design. Don't choose just any two opposites. Make sure you choose two with similar shades. A dark blue with a dark orange or a dark purple with a dark yellow are good choices whereas, a dark blue and light orange will not look as good together. Don't add a lot of other colors. Sticking with your two complementary colors, add other shades of the two colors for an appealing look.

Try complementary colors when decorating. The contrast of complementary colors creates a dramatic look in a room, while analogous colors create a softer effect. Consider this contrast in formal rooms or where you want a formal look. Use the 60-30-10 percent rule in decorating. Choose the main color to use on the walls (60 percent of color). Choose the complement of that color to use on the furniture (30 percent). Then choose a third color for accent (10 percent). For example, use blue on the walls, shades of orange on the furniture, and then add black for an accent. Black is considered a neutral and a great accent when decorating. Try adding different shades of the same color to add more dimension.

Choose complementary colors when dressing for success. A navy suit looks striking with an orange tie. Hunter green and burgundy complement each other as well as blue slacks and a gold shirt. With clothing, look at the intensity of the color. Stay away from dressing in only bright colors and lean more toward tones, tints and shades. Tones are colors with a touch of gray. Tints are colors with a touch of white and shades have a touch of black. If you wear a bright red shirt, match it with gray pants to tone down the shirt.

Be observant. With the help of a color wheel, working with complementary colors can be fun. Browse through magazines to see how designers work with contrasting colors. Look outside at nature's contrasts. When you walk into someone's home, what is it that appeals to you or doesn't work for you? Observing the use of contrasting colors will help you see which colors complement each other and which colors just don't work together.

About the Author

Pauline Gill is a retired teacher with more than 25 years of experience teaching English to high school students. She holds a bachelor's degree in language arts and a Master of Education degree. Gill is also an award-winning fiction author.