Everything To Know About Complementary Colors

If you didn't pay attention in art class, we can help. Here's how to use the color wheel to spice up your space with complementary hues.

Photographed by Claire Esparros.

Let's be honest: Very few things you learned in elementary school are actually useful in your adult life. You probably don't need long division, and you likely haven't written in cursive for several years.  Every once in a while, though, a tidbit of knowledge will resurface and make itself useful — like basic color theory. If you're wondering about complementary colors and how to decorate with them, it's time to revisit your third-grade art curriculum.

First, the why: In short, a complementary color scheme will make a room pop. As opposed to a monochromatic color scheme, which uses different tints of a single hue, complementary schemes combine two colors that are directly opposite of each other on the color wheel.

While combinations like blue and orange or purple and yellow might not initially seem like they'd mesh, when done well, they can help you to create an eye-catching space with a fingerprint that's all your own. 

The Science: Why Do Complementary Colors Look Good Together?

To answer this question, we also have to borrow a little bit of info from your grade-school science class.

We see colors because varying shades reflect (and absorb) different amounts of light. High-frequency lightwaves look purple, while low-frequency lightwaves look red — think of the rainbow — and there's a whole spectrum of different frequencies in between. When the lightwaves enter our eyes, they're processed by all different types of photoreceptor cells, called cones. Some cones process low-frequency wavelengths and some process high-frequency wavelengths.  

It turns out that there's a scientific reason why complementary colors look so good together: The cones in your eyes use a careful balancing act to ensure that you see color correctly, and when two opposite colors enter the eye, they stimulate both low-frequency cones and high-frequency cones at the same time. Basically, they play off each other's intensity and balance out. 

Okay, that's as technical as we'll get — I promise. Now, it's time to learn how to use complementary colors in your space. You'll need one essential tool...

The Colors On The Color Wheel 

This wheel probably looks familiar, and that's good — because it'll be your go-to guide for incorporating some drama into any room. On this circular spectrum of hues, you'll see your primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) as well as your secondary colors and tertiary colors.

There are multiple ways to use this wheel to create color harmony, but before you can understand what complementary colors are, you first need to understand what they're not.

Analogous color schemes, for example, use only hues that are side by side on the color wheel, like blues, greens, and violets. This is what most decorators use when incorporating colors into a room, and while it can be bright and unique, it doesn't create that eye-balancing effect we spoke about earlier. 

A triad is another example of color harmony. It utilizes hues that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, and when connected, they create a triangular shape. You can use this same technique with squares and rectangles, too, but complementary colors are arguably the easiest to see at a glance because they're directly across from each other on the color wheel. 

Pick any color, primary or otherwise, and go straight through the center of the circle to the other side. That's it. That's your complementary combination.

Choosing Your Complementary Color Combination

You'll notice that every complementary combination includes both a warm color and a cool color, and when paired next to each other, the shades seem to intensify. This will happen with virtually any combination, but the specific colors you choose will impact the tone and the style of a room.

When using the basic color wheel, you'll have six complementary pairs to choose from. The first three are primary-secondary complementary colors, while the last three are secondary-tertiary complementary colors. The former creates bold, bright spaces, while the latter is usually a little more subdued — but both will offer a color scheme that's both soothing and surprising to the eye at the same time. 

Blue And Orange

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A real ten out of den.

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"Build a timelessly chic foundation, then accessorize with abandon," author and designer Jonathan Adler said — and designs like this one prove that he's not afraid to accessorize with complementary color schemes. He offsets blue velvet chairs with orange curtains. Adler's design also emphasizes the orange tones in the brass furniture, but otherwise, his color scheme is bright and neutral, which proves that a few accents can go a very long way. 

Red And Green

This color combination doesn't have to look like Christmas. Australian design team Decus Interiors unapologetically combines red and green in this clean, modern bedroom-office space. The shades used for the wall accent and the chair come together in similar hues on the bed, which ties the whole room together. 

Yellow And Purple

If you're looking for a prime example (no pun intended) of how complementary colors interact, look no further than this design from Em Henderson. The whole tone is dark and moody, with a purple bedspread and purple curtains — but the single yellow painting on the wall brightens up the space and makes everything pop. 

Orange-Red And Aqua

Home and lifestyle designer Natalie Manima is the creator of Bespoke Binny, which incorporates African textiles into modern housewares. Complementary combinations run rampant throughout her designs — like this cozy blanket, for example. A warm, dark orange contrasts a cool, bright aqua for a look that's unexpected but inherently balanced. 

Pink And Lime Green

Designer Dabito is known for a fearless use of bright colors, and this unique wet bar is no exception. Here, a light green cabinet balances out a salmon-pink shelf backing. While very few people would think to put these colors together, there's something so visually pleasing about the combination — especially alongside subtle red and blue accents. 

Yellow-Orange And Indigo 

In this bedroom, designer and entrepreneur Justina Blakeney uses a subtle orange on the walls and a pale indigo headboard with a matching throw. This helps to create her signature "vibrant, jungalicious style," but due to the muted color combination, it still creates a calming ambiance that's conducive to a great night's sleep.

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