Skip to Content

Complementary Colors: a Surprising Explanation

Hello, and welcome to our exploration of complementary colors! Today we’ll learn what they are, how they’re used, color mixing theory, and some exciting examples of what can be done with these opposites. Along the way, we’ll also be in for some big surprises.

As background, my name is Lillie, and I’m an artist and teacher who hand-draws every illustration on this site. From “What is the Opposite of Red?” to every color in between, I delight in the color theory research and learning.

Complementary colors
Complementary colors!

What are Complementary Colors?

Let us begin with the definition. “Complementary colors” are defined as the pairs of colors that sit directly opposite each other on a color wheel. For example, the opposite of blue in the RYB color wheel is orange.

Different Color Wheels

Here’s what’s confusing: There are actually three different forms of the color wheel, so there are often multiple correct answers to what the opposite of any given color would be. In the traditional RYB wheel (illustrated above), the primary colors are red, yellow, and the secondary colors are orange, green, and purple.

In the RGB color wheel used with screens, the primary colors are red, green, and blue, and the secondary colors are yellow, magenta, and cyan. This makes for surprises such as the opposite of yellow being blue, instead of purple in the RYB system!

The CYMK color model has cyan, yellow, and magenta as its primary colors, and red, green, and blue as the secondary ones. Since this color wheel has the same building blocks as the RGB model, it also has the same complementary color answer as that wheel, as we saw in the article, “What is the Opposite of Green?” Let’s see some examples now…

Complementary Colors

In color theory, complementary colors or inverts are the ones that sit directly across from each other on the color wheel. What's confusing is there are actually three different wheels! Here's a summary of each complement.

Uses of Opposite or Invert Colors

What is the purpose of identifying complementary colors? Well, they are the pair that provides the highest possible contrast, so they are vibrant and “pop” excitingly for the eye. Further, when they are combined together, they cancel each other out and create a neutral like brown, gray, or black, as we saw in, “What do Purple and Yellow Make?”

What is the Correct Spelling?

Despite being an experienced English teacher, I messed up the spelling of “complementary colors,” myself — accidentally typing “complimentary colors” numerous times. Check out my lesson on “Complimentary vs. Complementary” to memorize the difference…

Opposite colors in the RGB color wheel
Opposite colors in the RGB color wheel!

Complementary Colors, in Sum

I hope this lesson on complementary colors has been interesting and useful. For further reading, check out my shocking investigation the multiple different definitions of the term “tertiary colors!”