How to Choose Colors Part V: Being “Complementary”


complementaryAs mentioned in my last post on colors, “Going Monochrome,” I introduced some easy ways for eliminating the stress that you may feel when selecting colors.  I described the Traditional Color Schemes in general, and provided more information about the Monochrome Scheme.

In this post, I’ll introduce you to the Complementary Scheme.

About the Complementary Scheme
Choosing Colors
Image Source: Wikipedia,  licensed under CC BY  3.0

Many people get confused between the words “complEmentary” with an ‘E’ and “complImentary with an ‘I. The word complimentary means flattering or appreciative. However complementary with an ‘E’ means harmonious or compatible.

You create a Complementary color scheme by combining two colors from opposite sides of the Color Wheel.  By nature, these colors will be harmonious and compatible. And if you use these colors next to each other when you color, each will make the other seem more intense and brighter.

The most basic Complementary colors are red with green (like Christmas), blue with orange, and yellow with violet (as in the violets above).

Complementary colors can be “in your face” when used in large doses, but work well when you want something to stand out. So when using the Complementary scheme, first pick a dominant color and then use its Complementary color for accents. Using one color for the background and its Complementary color to highlight important elements, you will get balanced contrast.  Also consider using a set of complementary colors to make specific elements in a design stand out, and then use tints, tones and shades for everything else. (Read this post to learn more about tints, tones and shades).

The Complementary color scheme offers more contrast than any other color scheme and really catches your eye.  On the other hand, it can be harder to balance the colors than with the Monochromatic and Analogous schemes.

Sample Complementary Color Schemes

Here are some examples of Complementary color schemes.

Image: Zeevvezz, CC BY 2.0


From my Scraft Artise Planner


Mixing Complementary Colors

There is an unlimited variety of color mixtures, tints, shades, and tones that you can make using only two Complementary colors plus white, gray and black.And when you mix two Complementary colors together you can create natural-looking neutrals that work very well.  So if you want to create shadowing, instead of using brown you can layer on some of the Complementary color.

In my color swatches below, I’ve shown Red and Green and Pink and Light Green. See how the brightness of each gets dulled down when you start layering on more of the other color? On the bottom row of the comparisons, I’ve added a little white to show how you can get a lovely range of neutrals without using plain old black.  In this case, with the red and green, you will get a nice, warm brown.

Click/tap image to see larger version in new tab

So, if you want  to tone down the color of something, simply add a very light layer of the Complement and you will get a more neutral version of the original.

Tips on Using the Complementary Scheme

Here are some other tips and recommendations when using Complementary colors:

  • To tone down a color without layering on black or grey, add a light layer of its Complement.
  • To make a particular area stand out, place a tiny accent of its Complementary color next to it.
  • Complementary colors as main colors work best when they are the same tint, tone or shade.
  • Make one of your colors the dominant one in your piece and use the other as highlight for most impact.
  • Use various intensities of the dominant color by adding different layers of its complement. Then add white to lighten, gray to soften or black to darken it.

If you haven’t already, check out my previous posts on choosing colors:

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What are your biggest challenges with choosing colors?  Let me know in the comments section below!


8 thoughts on “How to Choose Colors Part V: Being “Complementary””

  1. Stephanie says:

    Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed these posts, choosing colors has been my biggest hang up

    1. adultcoloring101 says:

      I agree, Stephanie! Choosing colors can add to your stress instead of taking it away. Be on the lookout for more posts on techniques and tools to make it easier!

  2. Tammy Horn says:

    Great tips! Choosing colors seem to be my downfall. I color almost daily, but sometimes when I choose a picture to color, it takes me a week before I start, often only because of the difficulty I have with choosing the right colors for me.

  3. Julie Waldron says:

    These are some great tips! A lot of time, colors that you think would not complement each other do

  4. Margaret Appel says:

    Thank you for explaining the difference between complimentary & complementary. I love these articles, especially on how to pick out colors that play well off each other. I’m drawn to certain colors but it’s sometimes hard to tell what to use opposite them.

  5. Very informative! Never pain enough attention to the “complementary” spelling….I will now!

  6. I enjoyed this interesting and very informative feature on colors and how they complement each other.

  7. This is a great help to me. I am not good at getting complimentary colors together.

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