Color Chat: Complementary Colors 48

I kept mentioning in previous tutorials that I’d talk about complementary colors in more detail, and I thought I should go ahead and actually do that!


The complementary color scheme is one of the standards in the design world. It’s a simple way to add contrast to any color scheme, and it can lead to a dynamic and lively design.


In the contrast tutorial, I mentioned that complementary colors are how to create hue-based contrast (contrast that focuses on the color alone). This is because complementary colors are opposites of each other. We represent that on the color wheel as being on opposite sides, but there’s actually a bit more to it than that. Complementary colors are actually the negative of each other, in that they’re made up of the colors the other is not.


As an example, when we use the primary colors red, yellow and blue, we can mix red and yellow to get orange. That leaves the primary blue, which is the complement of orange. It’s literally made up of the color that orange is not. Similarly, the complement of red would be made of the other two primaries: yellow and blue, which together create green. This gets more complicated as we move into more complex colors, but you hopefully get the idea.


This matters because when we look at a color long enough, our photoreceptors for that color will get fatigued, and won’t be as strong. However, the receptors for the complementary color are still at full strength and our brain interprets it as actually seeing that complementary color. Β That is why things like this optical illusion work. If you stare at the white dot in this flag for 30 seconds to a minute, then look at a white wall, you’ll see the properly-colored US flag.

If you’re interested in reading more about why and how this happens, it’s called the afterimage effect, and the wikipedia article linked there goes into some great details.


So that’s great and all, but other than a party trick, what’s the point? There’s two points. The first is that this means putting complementary colors together make BOTH colors look brighter and more saturated because some photoreceptors get slightly fatigued looking at one color and see the complement more strongly. Our eyes are made up of lots of photoreceptors, so they don’t all get fatigued, which is why it doesn’t just all go black. Fortunately!


I talked about this a bit in the color in context post, but now hopefully it’s a bit more clear why this happens.


In the images above, yellow-green and fuchsia (red-violet) are complements of each other. Both colors seem more vibrant next to each other than they do alone.


The second point is that this effect can actually cause a slight “vibration” at the edges where the two colors meet, which is something to keep in mind while designing. If you want a design that is possibly jarring and attention-getting, then make a long edge where the two complementary colors meet.


If, on the other hand, you want to minimize the vibration effect, there are a few ways to do it. The first is to minimize the amount that the two colors meet. We can do this by adding a neutral, or by choosing one dominant feature color, and using the complementary color as an accent.


Another method is to desaturate one or both the colors, or change the brightness. This is also an effective way to move away from the “Christmas effect.” Christmas colors are red and green (which are complementary) and it’s hard to use those colors without evoking Christmas.


However, by changing to a lighter shade of green and pink, the colors look more like spring, and less like Christmas. And there’s no vibration along the edge, either.


Finally, we don’t have to use perfect complementary colors to gain some of the benefits. Aqua is a blue-green, and it’s complement is a red-orange. You’ll notice even with the fabric, there’s a vibration effect where the two colors meet.


If we pair the aqua with a yellow-orange instead, we’re still on the other side of the color wheel and the colors will play off each other in a dynamic way. However, because they’re no longer perfect complements, it reduces the vibration effect significantly.


So why use complementary colors in your designs? For all the same reasons you would want to add contrast. Complementary colors can be used to help define shapes, and they can be used to lead the eye through a design.


Finally, complementary colors are also great for adding interest. If you ever feel like a color scheme in your design is feeling flat or boring, adding the complementary color is an easy way to give it some visual interest!


  • Complementary colors are colors that exist on opposite sides of the color wheel.
  • If the colors feel too strong next to each other, you can use one color less often as an accent, change the saturation and/or brightness of one or both colors, or use a colors that aren’t exact complements.
  • Use complementary colors whenever you want to create high-contrast, dynamic designs, or need to add visual interest.

As always, please feel free to ask any questions you might have!



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48 thoughts on “Color Chat: Complementary Colors

    • anne Post author

      Thanks, Ruth! πŸ™‚ I’m really liking that stack, too! Might be that after such a long winter, those spring colors seem even MORE inviting!

  • Anne/SpringLeaf Studios

    Thanks for a well thought through color study. I find the use of fabrics to demonstrate the theories very helpful. What would add even more clarity for many quilters would be examples of actual quilts that employ these theories. I’m moving on now to explore your other color posts. : )

    • anne Post author

      Oooh that’s an awesome idea! I’ll do a follow-up post and add them to this post as well. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the wonderful suggestion!

    • anne Post author

      Thanks Laura! I’m so glad you liked it. πŸ˜€ If you end up using these concepts in your next quilt design, I’d love to know about it! πŸ™‚

    • anne Post author

      Aww, thank you! πŸ˜€ It’s something I’m pretty passionate about, and I enjoy the chance to get to share that with other people! (Most of my friends are tired of hearing about it. lol)

    • anne Post author

      The same tips apply for avoiding sports team effect. lol So many of them like to use blue/orange and purple/yellow! Thanks for the positive feedback!

    • anne Post author

      You have good color intuition. πŸ™‚ The theories are there if you want to know why you might like something more than the other, but certainly not necessary! πŸ˜€ The vibration actually hurt my eyes from staring at it so much while I was writing this post. lol

    • anne Post author

      Haha thanks, Molli! πŸ˜€ You seem to rock out the monochromatic color schemes just as well (and make them look dramatic), so I’m glad you don’t limit yourself to just complimentary colors. πŸ™‚

    • anne Post author

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Kay! πŸ™‚ Are you a new quilter? If so, welcome! πŸ˜€ Let me know if I can help out. πŸ™‚

  • Am L

    Wonderful explanation. That blue and orange is so classic. TV news uses it a lot, and you will often see a newscaster wearing an orange top if their background is blue. I like the melodrama of the vibration from contrasting colors, although I find the design needs to be simpler in quilts when you use it, or it gets too busy. See you soon!

    • anne Post author

      Sports teams really like the orange/blue and purple/yellow combo, too. But good point about the news anchors! They’d have to choose colors that keep them from blending into the background. πŸ™‚
      I like in quilts to choose one dominant color and then use the complementary color as an accent. But I’ve seen people successfully balance the two, as well.

      See you tonight! I’ll bring a chair for ya. πŸ™‚

  • Rachel

    Nice explanation. I love the bundles used in this post. The green and hot pink one was nice, but then I saw the teal and orange\yellow combinations and now I want to go shopping!

    • anne Post author

      Thank you! πŸ˜€ Aqua and “goldfish yellow” as I like to think of it has really sparked my interest lately! There’s lots of great projects using those colors. πŸ™‚ Green and pink (in all of its various forms) is such a great spring combo. I can always tell when winter has started to drag on because I start wanting to do something with green and pink. πŸ™‚

  • Jessica

    Thanks again for the excellent examples, they always make the theories stick. I just lined a bag with a bright orange (thinking I was being brave, not a huge orange fan) but next to the navy binding, and with them both being solids, all I see is football team colours and now you put it in to words, I think it vibrates and hurts my eyes a bit.

    • anne Post author

      Aww, that’s always a bummer when you’re trying to go outside your comfort zone and you’re not happy with the results. Sports teams lovvvvve orange and blue (and purple and yellow) so it’s hard to use those colors without your brain “going there”. Adding a third color (maybe pink?) would help, or even using a navy print instead of a solid to break it up a bit. Of course, if it’s done, maybe it’s great the way it is! πŸ˜€

    • anne Post author

      Thanks so much, Sarah! πŸ˜€ I am simplifying a bit, since there are different primary color systems and such, but I thought going into all of that would have really confused things. Heck, I find it confusing! (Which makes it hard to write about. πŸ˜‰
      Anyway, point being, thank you! πŸ˜€ I appreciate the kind words. πŸ™‚ And I’m so glad you found it helpful!

  • Linda H.

    What you know and understand about color is amazing! It’s so generous of you to share that knowledge with us! I’ve been a quiltmaker since 1976, and though I have a good color sense, and have listened to numerous talks about color, I still don’t feel comfortable with it. I usually select colors I like and don’t try to branch out. But I AM trying your Pantone Challenge. I really like the way you show colors on this color wheel. Do you have a color wheel? I mean, the sort you hang in your quilting studio when you’re pulling stash colors? Do you have a recommendation for one? A poster, perhaps? Or how to make one from fabrics? Well, I would know how to make it, but I wouldn’t know which value and hue of prints to choose. Thoughts?

    • anne Post author

      Thanks so much, Linda! What a wonderful compliment! πŸ˜€ I’m glad you’re trying our Pantone challenge, too. πŸ™‚
      I don’t have a physical color wheel, although I’ve spent so much time with them that I can “see” it in my head. There are tools such as this one: which are nice for using with fabric.
      I know there was a color wheel quilt pattern going around a while back and I really want to make one! As for what colors, I would start with the 3 primaries: red, yellow and blue. Then the secondaries: orange, green and purple. Lay them out in a circle and look at your fabrics and see where they would fit around the circle. If they look muted or brown, then they’re maybe not a great fit for a color wheel quilt. Try to stick to vibrant colors. I’m not sure if that makes sense. I’d be happy to help further if you want! πŸ™‚

  • The Sassy Quilter

    Awesome as usual:) Do you actually own all these fabrics, because I need to touch them! or just stare at them on the shelf or something. Thanks for the understanding you give me on these posts, makes me really appreciate the fabrics and color so much more.

    • anne Post author

      Haha yes, the fabrics are all pulled from my stash. πŸ™‚ Which is why I’m trying not to buy as much fabric this year.. I have quite a lot of fabric already. πŸ™‚
      It’s seriously such a great thing to hear these tutorials are helpful! πŸ˜€ It definitely gives me motivation to keep doing them!

    • anne Post author

      Thank you! πŸ˜€ I have designed up this churn dash pattern in a couple color ways now, and I reallyyyy want to make one or two or three of them. πŸ™‚ It’s sized to be a pillow, so it wouldn’t even take that long. Maybe this weekend!

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for a fabulous explanation! Do you have any suggestions for how to balance color and white space? That seems to be my problem.

    • anne Post author

      Hi Rebecca! πŸ˜€
      What is the challenge you’re facing with color vs. white space? Which colors to use for white space, or how much to use, or something else entirely? Do you have some examples of projects you’re struggling with? I’d absolutely love to help! Like I tell Eli, I’ve got opinions, and I’m not afraid to use them. πŸ˜‰

  • BetsyE

    What a great explanation, and your fabric examples really help! Much better than just reading theory, and seeing plain colors on a wheel!

    • anne Post author

      I got a bit of fiber optics to play with from a friend. But I’ve since purchased more on eBay. There are lots of different options available there and the prices tend to be quite good.