What are Complementary Colors? How to Use them

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Complementary colors are incredibly important and useful when it comes to color mixing and painting. Understanding how they work will help you to not just broaden your color mixing skills but also to be able to mix up very subtle color transitions for your painting.

What are Complementary Colors?

Complementary colors are pairs of colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. Take a look at the color wheel below and you can see that blue and orange, red and green, as well as yellow and purple are all complementary color pairs because they are all directly opposite from one another on the color wheel.

Complementary color relationships within the color wheel

When you put complementary colors next to one another they create a very vibrant, high contrast relationship. Let’s take orange and blue for example: when placed next to each other, they create a very strong and intense color contrast because they are completely opposite colors.

How to Use Complementary Colors in Your Painting

Blue and orange are complementary colors.

Complementary colors also create a very interesting and beautiful color contrasts in a painting. This is due to the fact that no matter what combination you use, they will always be different from one another.

Using complementary colors can help make your painting more dynamic and stand out as can be seen in the Vermeer painting below. Notice how the blue and orange placed next to each other make that area of the painting stand out quite a bit.

Complementary colors don’t have to strictly be placed side by side in a painting for them to have a strong effect. Take a look at the Sargent painting below ‘Head of a Capri Girl’. The background color is a muted greenish color, while the headband color is red and surrounded by the girls black hair. Despite this, the background color of the green helps to make the color of the headband even brighter than it would look otherwise since it is the opposite color of green.

How to Mix Complementary Colors

Now, when you mix two complementary colors together, they create a muted color. This is because when the two colors are mixed together, they create a grayed down or duller version of both colors. Essentially, complementary colors have the ability to cancel one another out. So, if I were to mix some blue into orange the orange would become less orange. The opposite is also true because if you mix orange into blue then the blue becomes less blue. This is true for all of the complementary color pairs.

Mixing complementary colors with blue and orange

You can see an example below of mixing blue and orange together. Notice how the blue becomes muted when orange is mixed into it. Conversely, when you mix some blue into orange then you get a muted orange color.

When you mix the complementary colors blue and orange together, you can created muted shades of the color in focus.

Mixing complementary colors with red and green

The same holds true when mixing together the complementary colors green and red. Mixing up muted green colors by mixing some red into green is an excellent tip for creating more realistic landscape paintings. Most of the greens you will see are muted! Mixing up muted red colors is just as useful.

Mixing red with green (and vice-versa) will mute the shade of the color you are using as the base.

Complementary colors with purple

Now, we can see how mixing together the colors yellow and purple create equally useful muted colors.

Here you can see, that mixing the complementary colors yellow and purple together will mute your focused color – whether that be creating a muted purple or a muted yellow.

Remember that with all of these color mixtures you could make them more or less muted. For example, in the image above I could mix less purple into the yellow so that it would not turn out as muted. Or, I could simply mix in more yellow into my muted yellow to make it a little more yellowish. The same is true for the muted purple color.

Ability to Create Muted Colors

The ability that complementary colors have to mute each other is the exact reason why they are so important and why you need to use them in your painting. Rarely do you use a color straight out of the tube, as they are far too saturated. By using complementary colors, you can mix together a color that is much more subtle and realistic.

The world is not made up of bright colors everywhere. Most of the colors we see are muted and toned down. Which is why we need to do this in our painting as well by mixing up muted colors. If we were to use primarily saturated colors all over our painting it would look rather uninteresting and nothing would stand out as everything is bright. However, if we use a lot of muted colors and make just a few areas saturated – then those saturated areas will make a statement and create a focal point in the painting.

Example of muted, complementary colors in painting

Take a look at the painting below. It is full of muted colors, but has a few areas that are more saturated….

This Vermeer painting shows us muted colors help to make the bright parts of a painting really stand out

It is because of the muted colors that surround the painting that the bright colors (especially the dress) stand out so much and catch our eye. Vermeer utilized the power of complementary colors to mix his beautiful muted tones.

Different Complementary Color Pairs

There are more complementary color pairs beyond just blue and orange, purple and yellow and green and red. Take a look at the color wheel below that shows all the multitude of complementary color pairs that are found between red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.

You can find more complementary color pairs by using the color wheel above. For example, we can see that a cool blue is directly opposite the orangey red – making them both complementary color pairs.

The image below outlines all of the complementary color pairs that are in between green, yellow, red, orange, blue and purple. The color wheel could be broken down into even more colors that would reveal more complementary color pairs.

However, you don’t want to have to make up a big color wheel in order to figure out all the possible complementary pairs for different colors. There is a way for you to figure it out by just looking at a simple color wheel! For example if you mix a blue that is a little closer to green than purple then the complementary color for it would be more of a reddish orange.

If you mix a yellow that is more of an orangey yellow then its complementary color isn’t going to be a straight purple like it is for a pure yellow. Rather, it will be more of a bluish purple since the yellow is close to being orange. You can use this logic with all colors!

What About the Complementary Colors to Pink?

You might be wondering what the complementary colors to pink are! We don’t see pink on the color wheel. However, pink really is just a light red. In the color wheel above you can see the colors lightened on the middle and outer rim of the color wheel. You can see that the complementary color to the pink is a lighter value green color which resembles a pistachio or wasabi green.

In general, when you are dealing with lighter value colors, the complementary colors will also be equally light in value.

Color Amounts for Mixing Complementary Colors

Remember that depending on what kind of muted color you want to create use a little more of that color. For example, if you want to mix a muted orange color, then mix a smaller amount of blue into a larger amount of orange. The opposite is also true. If you want to mix a muted blue, then mix a smaller amount of orange into a larger amount of blue. You can see this illustrated in the image below.

Consider color strength

However, you also need to consider the strength of your color. Some colors are stronger than others. Darker colors as well as cadmiums tend to be stronger paint colors. If you use cadmium red – which is a very vibrant and strong color – and mix it into a green color you mixed up yourself then it might quickly and easily overwhelm the green color.

Conversely if you mix a dark purple into yellow it may easily overwhelm the yellow as it is lighter in value. So just be aware of the colors you are using and use appropriate amounts. The more you practice with complementary colors the more comfortable and knowledgable you will get about what kinds of colors you can mix.

How to Start Mixing Colors on Your Own

Practice mixing up some muted colors yourself by using the complementary color pairs on your palette. You will find that the amounts you use for each color will greatly affect the kind of muted color you are able to create. Start with just a tiny bit of the complementary color and slowly add more until you reach the desired muted tone. Play around with it and see what works best for the painting you are working on. When done correctly, this can be a very powerful tool in your painting arsenal!

A few color mixing resources that will help you practice mixing complementary colors:

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