Complementary Color Schemes Explained

Complementary Color Schemes Explained

A no nonsense guide to complementary color schemes and how to use them

In this article we’ll explain what a complementary color scheme is and how, when & where to use complementary color schemes and color palettes in your designs, layouts & photography.

Color schemes are guidelines that help us understand how colors work together and interact.

A complementary color scheme is a method of color theory where all the colors in your palette are taken from just two opposite colors in the color wheel. As the name suggests, these contrasting colors work to complement each other in a pleasing way. Complementary color palettes create contrast and energy while bringing a sense of harmony and balance to a space.

Whether you are a photographer, graphic designer or interior decorator, anyone with a creative passion can benefit from deepening their understanding of color.

In our last blog post, we covered monochromatic color schemes, which limit themselves to just one color for a cohesive, dreamlike effect. Complementary color schemes add variety and contrast while still keeping things cohesive by the color palette to only two colors, and various shades of that color.

How to select complementary colors:

You can find complementary color schemes by looking at the color wheel. Select a color and then look at the color opposite on the wheel – That is the complementary color.

The color wheel is the easiest way to come up with different complementary color combinations:

Complementary Colors List

Here is a quick list of complementary colors:

  • Red & Baby Blue
  • Orange and Sky Blue
  • Yellow & Navy
  • Green and Purple
  • Teal & Pink

Tips For Using Complementary Colors

Because complementary colors are at opposite ends of the color spectrum, they create very bold, contrasting looks. Here are a few tips for using complementary colors:

For a more subtle effect, use less saturated shades of color.

This will help reduce the contrast and provide a more calming pastel look.

Super high saturation = super high energy.

More subtle, pastel colors are more calming and unified:

Select your colors based off of the mood you want to create. 

Always start your color selection by first determining the mood & emotions you are going for in your composition. Do you want the photo to feel light and airy? Go for brighter pastels. High energy? Go for saturated colors.

For more on the emotions of different colors, check out this handy color psychology chart:

Color Psychology Chart - Learn the emotions of different colors

Examples Of Complementary Color Schemes

Here are 17 beautiful complementary color schemes & palette examples:

Complementary Color Palettes Wrap Up

As you can see, complementary color palettes are some of the most powerful color schemes out there. Hopefully these examples of complementary color schemes have sparked your imagination and shown you how to use complementary color schemes in your design, photography & creative life.

If  you found this helpful, can you do me a huge favor?

Pin this article to one of your pinterest boards and help others learn about using different color schemes.

Go create something awesome!

– Ryan

Want to learn even more about color? Check out these articles: