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What is an example of complementary in art?

What is an example of complementary in art?

Complementary colors are color pairs that are opposite each other on the color wheel. When placed next to each other, they create the strongest contrast for those particular two colors. Complementary colors highlight each other in an optimal way. Understanding how to use complementary colors is an important foundation for creating aesthetically pleasing compositions in visual art.

Definition of Complementary Colors

The basic complementary color pairs are as follows:

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

These are opposite colors on the standard 12-part color wheel. When complementary colors are mixed together, they cancel each other out to produce a neutral gray. However, when placed side-by-side, these color opposites make each other appear brighter, more saturated, and draw maximum contrast.

Complementary Color Pair Appearance when Paired
Red and Green Create strong visual contrast
Yellow and Purple Make each other seem more vibrant
Blue and Orange Appear brighter and more saturated

The high contrast created by complementary colors helps elements stand out from each other and creates a vibrant, energetic color scheme. The term “complementary” reflects the idea that these color opposites complement each other in a mutually enhancing way when used together.

Examples of Complementary Colors in Art

Many famous artists have utilized the striking effects of complementary colors in their paintings and other artworks. Deliberately juxtaposing complements creates color interest, drama, and visual contrast. Here are some examples of complementary colors in notable artworks:

Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh’s iconic painting The Starry Night is dominated by the complementary pair of yellow and blue. The swirling yellow stars and moons contrast against the deep blue atmosphere. This creates a dynamic interplay between warm and cool colors. The yellow pushes forward visually while the blues recede, creating a sense of movement and emotion.

Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting utilizes tiny dots of pure color juxtaposed next to each other. This relies on the viewer’s eye to mix the colors optically. Seurat placed complementaries like orange and blue side-by-side, causing them to appear more vivid than if blended. The contrast makes figures stand out distinctly from the backgrounds.

Piet Mondrian’s Composition With Red, Blue, and Yellow

Piet Mondrian’s abstract paintings feature bold perpendicular black lines defining blocks of pure color. His Composition With Red, Blue, and Yellow uses the primaries red, blue, and yellow which are evenly spaced complementary colors. The sharp contrast shows how complementary colors make each other zing.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VIII

Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky experimented with emotional effects of color. In his abstract Composition VIII, bursts of complementary colors like red-green, orange-blue, and yellow-violet collide in energetic asymmetry. Kandinsky relied on color opposites to convey dramatic feelings and convey tension.

Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych

Pop artist Andy Warhol frequently used complementary colors in his screen prints. His Marilyn Diptych features fluorescent orange, green, and pink Marilyns on a bright blue background. The clash of complements creates an electric, psychedelic effect.

Color Theory Principles Behind Complementary Colors

There are several color theory principles that explain why complementary colors have such a strong visual impact when paired together. These include:

Simultaneous Contrast

Placing complementaries side-by-side makes the eye perceive each color as brighter and more intense. This phenomenon is called “simultaneous contrast.” For example, red looks more vivid next to green than it does next to a neutral gray. Simultaneous contrast is intensified when true complements are paired.


Staring at a color induces an optical “afterimage” of its complement once you look away. This is caused by eye fatigue and receptors overcompensating. Afterimages enhance the vibrancy of real complements adjacent to each other. If you look at orange, then at a blue background, the blue will seem extra blue.

Color Harmony

Complementary colors are considered harmonious and pleasing to the eye, despite their contrast. They bring out the best in each other. For example, blue and orange are harmonious complements, even though blue is cool and orange is warm.

Optical Mixing

Our eyes automatically blend complementary colors placed near each other, creating the illusion of new hues in the gaps between them. This “optical mixing” allows richer variations than mixing paints physically. Juxtaposing red and green yields vibrant yellows and browns visible where they overlap.

Reinforcement of Both Colors

Complementary colors enhance the appearance of each other by a phenomenon called “reinforcement.” A color seems stronger and more pure when accompanied by its complement. This effect is used in afterimage therapy to strengthen weak color vision.

Tips for Using Complementary Colors in Art

Combining complementary colors requires careful handling to utilize their power effectively. Here are some useful tips on working with color complements:

Use Complements in Small Doses

A little goes a long way with bold complements. Too much equal emphasis can be jarring. Use one color as dominant and the other as accents. This creates balance while still getting the pop of contrast.

Allow Colors to Mix Optically

Don’t overblend complements. Allow them to retain their purity so the eye mixes them. Use brushstrokes, dots, lines, patterns and textures to intermingle them.

Try a Split Complementary Scheme

This retains color harmony while softening the contrast. Choose one base color, then colors on either side of its complement. For example, yellow could pair with red-violet and blue-violet.

Temper Complements with Intermediates

Introducing hues between the complements, like yellow-greens and blues, eases their clash. This transition allows them to work together more harmoniously.

Make One Complement Dominant

Decide which color drives the composition and let its complement provide accents. This creates hierarchy and develops a color strategy.

Watch Values for Positive/Negative Space

A dark valued color will visually recede, while light values will advance. Use this with complements to manipulate positive and negative space.

Try Different Color Media

Explore how complements interact in different media like colored pencil, pastel, acrylics, dyes, etc. Each handles color mixing and perception differently.

Study Natural Examples

Notice complementary colors in nature, like red flowers on green foliage. Observe how nature balances complements for cues on graceful color combinations.


Complementary colors utilize the high-contrast dynamics between colors opposite each other on the color wheel. When skillfully handled, they allow artists to create eye-catching, vibrant compositions full of color interest and visual flair. Complementary colors exemplify the principles of color theory and perception, making them an essential tool for any artist’s toolkit.

Famous Post-Impressionist, Modernist and Post-Modernist artists all capitalized on the fireworks created by complements. Studying their approaches provides inspiration on innovative ways to use color contrasts. With practice, complements can be tamed to provide just the right pop of excitement. Balancing harmony and contrast is the key to mastering the artistic impact of complementary colors.