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3 surprising reasons to use complementary colors | What are they?

Did you know that complementary colors have a lot more functions than what most people think?

As most people know, complementary colors make each other pop. Therefore they are strategically used in design. Take for example the Firefox logo. It uses the complementary colors orange and blue to create an eye-catching look.

Keep reading to find out 3 more surprising reasons to use complementary colors. But first: what are complementary colors?

What are complementary colors in art?

Complementary colors are colors that sit on opposite sides on the color wheel. Examples of complementary colors are: red and green, yellow and purple and orange and blue. Mixing complementary colors result in a desaturated, or gray mixture.

what are complementary colors

In the image above you see where each color sits on a color wheel. Every color that sits opposite any color is its complementary color.

But the thing is, colors come in a lot of variations. In between each color, there is a slightly different color.

This means that if one color shifts ever so slightly, its perfect complementary also shifts ever so slightly.

But, as always with color theory, there’s something to keep in mind.

Using the right color wheel

Another important thing complementary colors do is neutralize each other. This means that, when mixed, complementary colors turn gray.

While the classic Red, Blue and Yellow color wheels provide the best complementary pairs, the Cyan, Magenta and Yellow color wheel provides the best complementaries that neutralize each other.

Read here all about the differences between a RBY, CMY and RGB.

cmy color wheel



Take a look at the resulting mixtures when we mix the complementaries of an RBY based color wheel vs a CMY color wheel:

ryb complementaries cmy complementaries

Clearly the CMY complementaries neutralize each other a lot better. I advice to use these to neutralize your colors.

But use the RBY complementaries for when you design your artwork.

Let’s go on to the three surprising reasons to use complementary colors

1. By using complementary colors you are able to control a color’s saturation

One of the biggest perks of using complementary colors is that they allow you to be in control over the saturation. There’s no need to use gray paint anymore.

If you need a reminder about hue, saturation and values you can read this article.

But in short:

  • Hue
    • The color group (red, green, blue, yellow, purple, orange)
  • Value
    • How light or dark a color is
  • Saturation
    • How vivid a color is
    • If a color is completely saturated it’s gray. If the color is 100% saturated the color is in it’s purest form.

When you mix complementary colors they cancel each other out. Meaning, that if you were to mix green and purple (according to a CMY color wheel) it results in a gray mixture.

Gray is the component that you need to desaturate a color.

So if you want to mix a lilac for example, you take your purple and add a bit of green (according to the CMY-based color wheel).

how to make lilac

Just make sure to lighten the value after mixing the complementaries, as lilac is a light color.

Key is to add the right amount of complementary color. If you were to add too much green to your purple, your mixture turns out way too gray.

It’s best to add a little at a time, until you get the right tone. You need to balance the right amounts.

Remember: you can always desaturate a color but you cannot make a color more saturated.

Why controlling saturation in a painting is important

Playing with saturation has the following perks:

  • You can direct calmness in your art with different levels of saturation
  • You are able to use saturation to attract different audiences
    • Generally, desaturated colors are stylish, sophisticated and minimalistic. They attract similar people
    • Highly saturated colors often attract children (think of cartoons like SpongeBob), and are popular in pop culture (think of Andy Warhol’s paintings) and they resemble happiness

If you paint realistically you notice that real life colors are a lot more desaturated than one might think. Therefore knowing how to control your saturation is key to paint realistically.

2. Complementary colors allow you to disregard black paint

To create a full, cohesive painting all you need are 3-4 primaries + white. No need to use a black color.

Black paint is used to darken the value of any color. While the value of a painting is the most important thing to get right, you can totally skip the black paint.

Why? Because you can derive different levels of values from the colors in your color palette.

what are complementary colors

Since we now know that colors desaturate each other, we can use the darkest desaturated mixture, which would be a dark grey, and add them to other colors to create shades. (Shades = hue + black).

Usually this is done by adding Ultramarine Blue (a dark blue) to a dark brown, like Burnt Sienna or Yellow Ochre, which are both browns.

Browns are shades of yellow, which according to a CMY color wheel, mixed with a blue creates a grey. Since Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna are both dark colors, they will create a dark grey.

Give it a try! The benefit of doing it this way is that you don’t need to buy an extra black color.

But keep in mind that you still need to create enough contrast for your painting to read well. To lighten a value you need to use a white paint.

Watercolor purists and other art purists

Some art purists love saying you can’t use black because its technically not a color.
I on the other hand, with many others, disagree.

I think you can use black whenever you feel like it. But just know that you can leave out black by using complementary colors only!

If you’re interested in learning how to create custom color palettes, this is the article for you.

3. You can avoid flat paintings by using complementary colors in places you don’t expect

Color has so much influence on how a painting is percieved. Not all of these colors need to be true to reality.

When you use a complementary color as a shadow or reflective light, it brings much more interest to a painting than if it were to be painted true to nature.

Take for example artist Angela Sung. When you look at the painting below, you can see that she used areas of complementary colors: yellow near purple, blue near orange etc. in unexpected places.


Upon examening her artwork, the main thing that I notice is that all of the different colors she uses have something in common: they are all close in saturation and value.

Because the patches of colors are so close in saturation and value, they’re not distracting. You only notice it when you pay attention, and then you get sucked into the painting which makes you admire it so much more.

Therefore using complementaries aren’t as simple as giving a character yellow hair and a purple shirt.

Little specks of complementary colors in places you don’t expect them turn a simple painting into an amazing painting.

4. BONUS REASON: Complementary colors help you to avoid muddy art

There are a lot of different color wheels out there, each with different pros and cons.
The main 2 color wheels are Red Green Blue and Cyan, Magenta and Yellow.

To create the perfect color palette that achieves the most predictable results, you must pick complementaries that achieve a true neutral gray when mixed.

This means that, when you use these colors to mix other colors with, you know which colors to avoid mixing, because it will muddy (or desaturate) the final mixture.

Whit this knowledge, your mixtures will be very reliable and predictable which results in no muddy art.

Muddy-proof color palette

The perfect no-mud color palette exists out of 2 main abilities:

  • The ability to create a value range
  • The ability to control saturation

To control the saturation of hues you need complementaries that achieve true neutrals in your palette. We’ve found that Cyan, Magenta and Yellow create the best neutrals.

This is what a CMY based palette secondaries produce:

  • Cyan + magenta = blue
  • Magenta + yellow = red
  • Yellow + cyan = green

Not only produce CMY primaries every hue you need, they also achieve the most saturated hues.

Since hue, and not color (which includes saturation and value as well), plays a role in desaturation alone, all you need to worry about is how to create a value range.

To adjust value you need to add either white or black. Technically, white and black aren’t colors, they are values: it’s light.

But since we cannot paint with light, we still need to use black and white paint.

what are complementary colors

As previously mentioned you can also use ultramarine blue with a sienna brown, but since our palette is limited to cyan, magenta and yellow, we cannot use those pre-made colors.

Every complementary pair has it’s own formula

Some colors are stronger than others. Red is a much stronger color than cyan because cyan is, by nature, a light color.

If you were to mix them equally, the resulting mixture would still very much lean towards red.

This is why when desaturating one of these colors you need a smaller amount of the strong color and a bigger amount of the weak color.

To desaturate cyan and red the following formula is advised:
85% cyan + 15% red = gray

But for equally strong colors like green and red, the formula may be something like this:
50% magenta + 50% green = gray

Since colors are almost never the perfect green, or the perfect blue you need to balance the percentage of each complementary to get the right amount of gray.

In conclusion

So, the three four surprising ways to use complementary colors are:

  1. By using complementary colors you are able to control a color’s saturation
  2. Complementary colors allow you to disregard black paint
  3. You can avoid flat paintings by using complementary colors in places you don’t expect
  4. Complementary colors help you to avoid muddy art

When we talk about complementary colors we talk about hues, and not nescecarily colors. The saturation and value of the color doesn’t matter as much.

This means that light blue and a dark orange still make each other pop. They do not have to be equal in value and saturation.

Most commenly asked questions about complementary colors

What happens when you mix complementary colors?

When you mix complementary colors they neutralize each other. This means that when mixed, complementaries turn gray.

What are examples of complementary colors according to RYB?

The following color pairs are complementary colors accoring to a RYB color wheel:

  • Red and Green
  • Orange and Blue
  • Yellow and Purple

What are complementary colors according to CMY?

The following color pairs are complementary colors according to a CMY color wheel:

  • Yellow and Blue
  • Red and Cyan
  • Magenta and Green
what are complementary colors?

I hope you enjoyed this article on ways to use complementary colors. See you next week,

♡ Laura

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