Color Theory 101: Making Complementary Colors Work for You


Do you remember the color wheel? Conventional color wisdom has it that colors that lie opposite to one another on the wheel—or complementary colors—are especially pleasing together. And lest you dismiss this as the color equivalent of an urban myth, there’s actually scientific evidence supporting the idea that certain colors look good together. Here’s how to make it work for you.

The three traditional sets of complementary colors, as derived from the Red-Yellow-Blue color model, are red and green, yellow and purple, and orange and blue. You can see them positioned opposite one another on the color wheel above. Other color models produce different complements; in the additive model of color, the complements are green and magenta, red and cyan, and blue and yellow (IKEA, anyone?).

Join the Color Cure! Episode One, with Maxwell:

Complementary colors, when used together in color schemes, are especially dynamic and pleasing to the eye. This is because different types of cones (the photoreceptor cells in your eye that contribute to color vision) perceive different colors of light. If you stare for a long time at a block of color and then quickly look at a white wall, you’ll see a light afterimage in the opposite, or complementary, color.

For example, let’s say you’re staring at a blue square. After a while, the cells in your eye that process blue light will become fatigued, making the signal they send to your brain slightly weaker. Since that part of the visual spectrum is slightly suppressed, when you look at a white wall after staring at the blue square, you’ll see a faint orange afterimage. What you’re seeing is the white spectrum of light from the wall, minus a tiny bit of blue, which your brain processes as orange.

So what does this mean for the decorator? It means that combinations of complementary colors are especially dynamic together, since they play up each other’s intensity. A tiny bit of orange really pops in a blue room (and vice versa, like in the room at the lead of this post, by Deborah French Designs) because your eye wants to see that color. A combination of two complementary colors may be perceived as soothing or balanced, since it simultaneously stimulates different parts of the eye. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the examples below.

Orange & Blue

This is my favorite of the complementary color matchups. Cool blue and punchy orange are such an odd couple, yet when they come together they make such beautiful music. I love how in the photo above (from House Beautiful via Cottage Modern), the orange in the blanket really seems to jump right off of the page.

I think the reason I’m so drawn to this combo is that I really, really love light blue. Paired with a bright orange, it just seems impossibly brilliant and serene. On left, blue tile with touches of orange in an Austin home from Design*Sponge; on the right, a whole wall of orange plays up a gorgeous blue velvet sofa in this living room from Lonny.

Yellow & Purple

In this interior from Tilton Fenwick, an ombre painting in delicious tension with those distinctive yellow spines. Look at the yellow candle below the painting. Is that not the yellowest yellow you’ve ever seen? Science at work.

Just a little bit of yellow and purple is bold and dynamic, as seen in this interior from Elle Norway via The Vintage Home.

Want a little more? This space from Gary Riggs successfully makes use of yellow and purple for a whole room; keeping most of the tones desaturated ensures that things don’t get too out of control.

Red & Green

Naturally, it’s hard to see these colors together without thinking, “Christmas!”. The secret to this, I think, is to pull one of the colors away from the traditional Yuletide emerald green and bright crimson red. The example above (from Mires Paris via Lamps Plus) works because the ceiling leans a little toward magenta. Of course, in the Indian bedroom below, the colors couldn’t be more Christmas-y, but somehow it works—proof that rules are made to be broken.

On the left: a little bit of red and green enlivens a space from Little Green Notebook. Right: lots of red and green creative a luxurious, jewel-box feel, from Elle Decor India via An Indian Summer.

What do you think? Feeling inspired to try out one of these bold combos?


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