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What is the meaning of split complementary color?

What is the meaning of split complementary color?

Split complementary colors are three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They consist of a base color, and the two colors adjacent to the base color’s complement. Split complementary color schemes create high contrast and vibrancy, while also offering more nuance than basic complementary colors. They are frequently used by artists and designers looking to add visual interest to their work.

What are complementary colors?

Before diving into split complements, it’s helpful to understand what complementary colors are. Complementary colors are any two colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple are examples of complementary pairs.

These opposite colors create the highest possible contrast, which draws a lot of visual attention. When placed side-by-side, complements make each other appear more vibrant and intense. This can be useful when trying to highlight certain elements in a design.

However, large areas of pure complementary colors can be jarring and create too much contrast. This is where split complements come in handy.

How are split complementary colors different?

Rather than using two colors directly across from each other, split complementary schemes use three colors. You choose one base color, then the two colors adjacent to its complement.

For example:
– If the base color is red, its complement is green.
– The two colors next to green are blue and yellow.
– So the split complementary scheme would be red, blue, and yellow.

This creates a color scheme with one warm color (yellow), one cool color (blue), and one neutral color (red). The contrast is high, but not as extreme as straight complements.

Benefits of using split complementary colors

There are several advantages to using split complementary color schemes:

Creates vibrancy: The high contrast between the three colors creates a vibrant look, even more so than using the base color alone. This vibrancy draws the viewer’s eye.

Adds visual interest: Having three colors provides more nuance and dimension than two complementary colors alone. This adds visual interest to any composition.

Balances warm and cool: Most split complementary schemes contain a warm color, cool color, and neutral color. This balance is pleasing to the eye.

Versatile: Split complementary schemes work for any base color. You can generate endless color palette options.

Easier on the eyes: The colors have enough contrast to be exciting, but aren’t as jarring as straight complements. This makes them easier to look at over long periods.

How to choose split complementary colors

Picking a split complementary palette is simple once you understand color theory. Just follow these steps:

1. Choose any base color on the color wheel.

2. Identify the color directly across from it – this is its complement.

3. Move one color clockwise and one color counterclockwise from the complement.

4. Those three colors make up your split complementary scheme.

You can start with any color that fits your needs – warm, cool, dark, light, muted, bright, etc. The most important thing is choosing a strong base color you want to build on.

Examples of split complementary color palettes

To give you a better idea of how these work, here are some examples of split complementary schemes:

Red, blue, yellow

Red Blue Yellow

The vibrant primary colors create an energetic look. This scheme is playful and draws the eye.

Purple, green, orange

Purple Green Orange

These secondary colors have a lower contrast, creating a more muted look. The palette feels harmonious.

Teal, red-orange, yellow-orange

Teal Red-orange Yellow-orange

This scheme mixes a cool color with two warm ones. It has enough contrast to be vibrant without going overboard.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless! Choose any base color and experiment with split complements.

How to use split complementary colors in design

When using a split complementary palette, it’s important to establish proper color harmony. Here are some tips:

– Use your base color as the dominant shade, with accents of the other two colors. The base ties everything together.

– Balance your use of warm and cool colors. Don’t let one overwhelm the other.

– Try 60/30/10 or 70/20/10 ratios. Use your base color for 60-70% of the design, and the other two for 30% and 10%.

– Avoid placing the two accent colors next to each other. This creates too much contrast.

– Make sure colors complement your content. Bright fun palettes suit a playful tone, while muted palettes fit formal content.

With practice, using split complements will become intuitive. Always keep the principles of harmony and contrast in mind.

Examples of split complementary schemes in art and design

Many renowned artists and designers incorporate split complementary colors in their iconic works:

Vincent Van Gogh – His painting Cafe Terrace at Night uses yellow for the cafe facade, violet for the night sky, and blue accents throughout. The mood is both vibrant and harmonious.

Piet Mondrian – His abstract paintings like Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow feature blocks of primary colors from a split complement scheme.

Bauhaus design – The modernist Bauhaus school used split complements in their furniture, typography, and architecture. Teal, yellow-orange, and red-violet were common.

Wes Anderson films – Movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel use playful split complementary palettes of pink, teal, and yellow to create a distinct look.

Many logos also leverage split complements. Instagram’s purple and orange, Amazon’s orange, teal, and black, and Nickelodeon’s orange, teal, and white are examples. overall, split complements are widely used across visual arts and design.


In summary, split complementary color schemes offer a vibrant but balanced approach to color palettes. They provide more nuance than basic complements through the addition of a third accent color. The contrast attracts attention while the color relationships create harmony.

Split complements work for any base color and can be adapted to suit warm, cool, muted, or bright styles. They are versatile for graphic, product, fashion, interior design, and fine art. Following basic principles of color harmony leads to beautiful split complementary palettes. With some color theory know-how, anyone can implement this interesting scheme in their visual work.