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Why is purple the opposite of yellow?

Purple and yellow are considered opposite colors on the color wheel. This is because they are complementary colors – they are directly across from each other on the wheel. When complementary colors are mixed, they “cancel” each other out and create a grayscale color. This is why purple and yellow are opposites.

What is the color wheel?

The color wheel is a visual representation of color theory. It shows the relationships between colors. The color wheel was invented in 1666 by Isaac Newton, who mapped the color spectrum onto a circle. Since then, it has been expanded upon by many color theorists.

The basic color wheel consists of three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue. The secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors – orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue) and purple (blue + red). Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary and secondary color.

On the wheel, complementary colors are located directly across from each other. These color pairs contrast strongly and create vibrant images when placed side-by-side. The main complementary pairs are:

  • Red & Green
  • Yellow & Purple
  • Blue & Orange

Why are purple and yellow complementary colors?

Purple and yellow are complements because they create a strong contrast when placed together. Purple contains blue and red light waves, while yellow contains mostly green and red light waves. When combined, these colors produce a neutral gray or brown.

Our eyes have receptors for red, green, and blue light. Complementary colors stimulate these receptor cells in different ways. Purple mainly stimulates the blue and red receptors. Yellow stimulates the red and green receptors. When they are combined, the eye perceives a neutral color.

How do our eyes perceive color?

The human eye has two types of light receptors – rods and cones. The rods detect brightness and motion, while the cones detect color.

There are three types of cones, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light:

Cone type Peak sensitivity
S cones (short) 420-440 nm (blue light)
M cones (medium) 534-545 nm (green light)
L cones (long) 564-580 nm (red light)

Our cones are stimulated by different levels of red, green, and blue light. The combination of stimulations produces all the colors we see. Complementary colors stimulate the cones in opposite ways, creating a strong contrast.

The properties of purple and yellow light

Purple and yellow have very different light wave properties, which enhance their contrast:

Color Wavelength range Frequency range
Purple 380-450 nm 668-789 THz
Yellow 570-590 nm 508-526 THz

As shown, purple has a shorter wavelength and higher frequency than yellow. When combined, these light waves essentially cancel each other out by overstimulating different cone cells in the eye.

Psychology of purple and yellow

In color psychology, purple and yellow represent very different feelings and meanings:

Color Psychology
Purple Royalty, luxury, creativity, imagination, wisdom, spirituality
Yellow Happiness, optimism, idealism, hope, fun

Purple is associated with extravagance and the nobility, while yellow represents optimism and youth. Purple conjures up imagery of fantasy and dreams. Yellow is energetic and lively. These contrasting associations enhance the perception of purple and yellow as opposites.

Uses of contrasting purple and yellow

The strong visual contrast between purple and yellow makes them useful for creating dynamic graphic designs. Some examples include:

  • Company logos and brands
  • Warning signs
  • Sport team uniforms and merchandising
  • Food packaging
  • Website color schemes

Purple and yellow command attention when placed together. Using these opposites can make a design eye-catching and vibrant. The contrast creates visual interest and leaves a striking impression.


In summary, purple and yellow are considered opposites because they strongly contrast on the color wheel. They stimulate different color receptors in the eye, essentially canceling each other out. Purple and yellow also have very different light properties and psychological associations.

The opposition between purple and yellow makes them ideal for creating dramatic and lively visual designs. Their contrasting natures are what define them as color opposites.