Considering Complementary Colors

Considering Complementary Colors

Janel Laban
Jul 16, 2015

We recently explored the power of analogous palettes, the combination of hues that are found directly next to each other on the color wheel. Today, I've got the absolute opposite, yet equally interesting (especially for interiors) type of color combination for you to become familiar with. It's the pairing of colors directly across from each other on the wheel: a complementary combo.

Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel.
(Image credit: Dabney Frake)
Just as in relationships, the combination of opposites can be a successful pairing. Nancy examined the reasons why in her post on these intriguing combos:

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.

Think about it: A tiny bit of orange really pops in a blue room (and vice versa) 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.

Applying this color truism to interiors is one of those designer tricks that, when put into practice, results in rooms that simply look and feel special. The offbeat yet ultimately harmonious combination makes for standout spaces.

Take a look at this collection of rooms photos that all feature a classic complementary combination, orange and blue. The photos will reveal, that the combination works, no matter how far you push the intensity, amount or even the range of the colors.

In Cynthia's room, the orange and blue used are both clear, bright versions of the colors. They are equally poppy and intense and work well with all the white used in the room. When using the combination in this pure, intense form, you don't need a large amount of the color to feel a big impact.

In this kitchen from the Netherlands, similar, yet slightly deeper brights are also used, but instead, the majority of the room is taken up with the two colors, with minimal white accents. It's somewhat the opposite in terms of amount of color to Cynthia's room above, yet the combination is equally successful.

Andie's room is a perfect example of how powerful even a small amount of one of the complementary colors is in conjunction with its opposite. The single shot of orange on the pillow makes this bedroom color scheme come alive.

Michael, Kerri and Nora's living room shows yet another way to work with complementary colors. By taking the two hues both down the intensity scale to pastel-ish versions of the colors, the overall look of the room is very different from the more poppy examples above, yet retains the visual interest of the opposites working next to each other.

Jamie's kitchen shows that you can mix a pastel tint version of one color (and even push it hue-wise to a slightly different version of the color - in this case a turquoise instead of a true blue) with a bold bright version of the complementary color (here a very zingy orange) and still have the same good "it works" look to the space.

Our final example shows how pushing both colors away from their true, centered hue and making them both dusky tints still works. The blue here shifts to a chalky, slightly grayed out tone on the wall and a deep turquoise on the pillow and the orange moves to tones of coral, yet the combination remains pleasing and interesting.

Getting comfortable with the concept of complementary colors will allow you to create rooms that are powerful, no matter the intensity of the hue or the amount of color used. It's yet another powerful color concept worth considering and giving a try out in your own home. Purple and yellow anyone?

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