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What does complementary mean in colors?

Complementary colors are color pairs that are opposite each other on the color wheel. When placed side-by-side, complementary colors create the strongest contrast out of all the color combinations. This stark contrast allows complementary colors to really make each other stand out. Using complementary colors together can create color vibrancy and visual impact.

Definition of Complementary Colors

The term “complementary” means that the two colors complement each other and bring out the best in one another. On the color wheel, they are located directly across from each other, at 180 degrees separation. Some common pairs of complementary colors are:

  • Red and green
  • Yellow and purple
  • Blue and orange

These opposing colors balance each other out and create a strong visual contrast. When you look at a color’s complementary color, it almost seems to vibrate against the complement. This helps each color stand out and makes both seem more vibrant when placed next to each other.

How Complementary Colors Work

Complementary colors work because they contain no common hues or shades. Red contains no hints of green, just as orange contains no hints of blue. This creates maximum contrast and visual tension.

Our eyes like to see balance in color pairings. Complementary colors provide that balance because they contain the full spectrum of light between them. When you look at a color and its complement together, the two colors seem to vibrate against each other. This creates a dynamic energy that catches the viewer’s eye.

The high contrast of complementary colors also helps things stand out from their background. The colors are so different from each other that anything of one color will readily stand out against a background of its complement. This can be useful for highlighting important text or graphics against a colored backdrop.

Examples of Complementary Colors

Here are some common examples of complementary color pairings:

  • Red and Green: Red and green are complements because they sit opposite each other on the color wheel with no shared hues. When paired, they create a classic complementary pairing with a Christmas-like vibe. The contrast makes each color seem brighter.
  • Yellow and Purple: Another vibrant complementary duo is yellow and purple. These opposites pair a primary color (yellow) with a secondary color (purple). Together they deliver a bold, lively color scheme.
  • Blue and Orange: Blue and orange strongly contrast because they contain no similarities. Blue is a cool tone while orange is warm. When combined, this pairing offers a colorful, youthful energy.

Any two colors that fall directly across from each other on the color wheel can make a complementary pairing. The contrast is what defines them as complements.

Benefits of Using Complementary Colors

There are several beneficial effects of using complementary colors together:

  • Create visual contrast: Complementary colors have maximum contrast, making them stand out against each other. This contrast can make content captivating and eye-catching.
  • Increase visibility: If you place something of one color against a complementary background, it will readily stand out and grab the viewer’s attention.
  • Provide color balance: Complementary colors offer visual balance, with each color offsetting the other.
  • Generate energy: The vibrating contrast between complements projects a lot of visual energy and dynamism.
  • Make colors “pop”: Each complement seems to make the other one stand out, almost vibrating against it. This makes both colors appear more vibrant.

With benefits like increased visibility, color balance, and visual contrast, it’s easy to see why complementary colors are a popular choice for all kinds of designs and color schemes.

Tips for Using Complementary Colors

Here are some tips for working with complementary colors in your designs:

  • Use complements in moderation. Having large areas of high-contrast complements can lead to visual vibration and fatigue. Try using one color as the dominant shade, and use its complement for accents.
  • Alter the saturation and brightness of the colors. This can help soften the high contrast while still keeping their complementary relationship.
  • Introduce a third “bridge” color between the complements to connect them together.
  • View your color combinations in black and white to check the contrast ratios.
  • Consider the meaning and symbolism of your color choices and what effect you want to convey.
  • Trust your instincts! Complementary colors can be safely used in most applications if you apply them thoughtfully.

Complementary colors invariably work best when you don’t use them in equal proportions. Let one dominate and use the other as accent colors in text or graphics. This creates a vibrant, balanced color scheme.

Examples of Complementary Colors in Design

Here are some examples of complementary colors used effectively in various industries and designs:

  • Graphic design: Complements are commonly used for vibrant magazine layouts, posters, brochures, and other designs that need visual punch.
  • Web design: Websites often incorporate complementary colors to make buttons, headings, and icons pop against backgrounds.
  • Logos: Major brands like Netflix, Nickelodeon, and Mastercard use complementary colors to create vivid, memorable logos.
  • Interior design: Home decor uses accents like orange pillows against a blue sofa to liven up spaces with energetic complements.
  • Fashion: Clothing and accessories regularly pair complements like yellow tops with purple pants to generate bold outfits.

In virtually any industry, complementary colors can be found adding visual interest, contrast, and dynamism to designs. Their high-contrast relationship offers endless possibilities for unique color schemes.

Common Complementary Color Combinations

Here are some examples of popular complementary color pairings used in design:

Color 1 Color 2
Red Green
Yellow Purple
Blue Orange
Magenta Green
Cyan Red

As shown, common complementary pairs include primary colors paired with secondary colors. But any colors opposite each other on the color wheel can make strong complements.

Tools for Finding Complementary Colors

Several helpful tools exist to find the ideal complementary color scheme:

  • Color wheel: A classic color wheel shows complements directly across from each other. Rotate the wheel to find color matches.
  • Online tools: Websites like Adobe Color CC have complementary color picking tools. Upload a photo to find its complements.
  • Phone apps: Apps like Color Companion and ColorSnap Visualizer simplify complement finding on the go.
  • Color books: Print references like Pantone swatch books contain coordinated color pairings.

With these handy complementary color pickers, it’s easy to set the color wheel spinning and find vibrant complementary schemes for any project.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are red and green complementary colors?

Red and green are complements because they sit opposite each other on the color wheel. Red is a primary color, while green is a secondary color mixed from blue and yellow. Their lack of shared tones creates strong visual contrast.

What colors go well with orange?

Good color pairings with orange include:

  • Blue – As orange’s complement
  • Brown
  • White
  • Black
  • Gray
  • Coral

Blue is orange’s classic complementary pairing. Brown, white, black, and gray create more neutral schemes that allow orange to stand out. Coral combines two warm tones for a vibrant color scheme.

Why do complementary colors go well together?

Complementary colors pair well together because they create maximum visual contrast and reinforce each other. Located opposite each other on the color wheel, they contain no shared hues, allowing each complement to stand out against the other. This contrast helps the colors appear more vibrant.


Complementary color schemes offer one of the most vivid and high-contrast options from the color wheel. The term “complementary” refers to any two colors that sit directly across from each other at 180 degrees. Red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple are examples of popular complementary pairs.

These opposing colors have maximum contrast because of their lack of shared tones. When paired, they seem to vibrate against each other for an energetic, visually striking combination. The contrast also helps each complement stand out and appear more saturated. Complementary colors work best when you let one color dominate and use the other as an accent.

Thoughtfully incorporating complementary colors can create color schemes that are balanced yet packs visual punch. Their vibrant relationship makes complementary color combinations a bold choice for all kinds of designs and industries seeking to grab attention and energize the viewer.