Top 3 Things to Know About Complementary Colors

“I am always hoping to make a discovery here, to express the feelings of two lovers by a marriage of two complementary colors, their minglings and their oppositions, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones.”

Vincent van Gogh

1. Complements are opposite each other on the color wheel

Ok, this is the basic fact about complementary colors: complements are opposite eachother on the color wheel. Now, which color wheel you use, that is another story we’ll get into a little later, however, this is essential color stuff, basic fact, must know: to confirm that two colors are complementary note that they are diametrically opposed on the color wheel.

Click the veil to pause the spinning color wheel to isolate the complementary colors. Thus you can see that pairs of complements are Red and Cyan, Green and Magenta,  and Blue and Yellow.

2. Complements mix to grey and stand next to eachother in vibration.

“They incite each other to maximum vividness when adjacent; and they annihilate each other to gray black when mixed- like fire and water.”

-Johannes Itten on complementary colors

As a designer, painter or visual jedi- be on the lookout for complementary colors. If you see them next to eachother note the tension between them.

If you want a Green to stand out, put it on a Magenta background. It might even hurt the eyes. Complementary colors when snugged up against eachother mark a strong contrast. Yet when blended, they create grey.

Complementary colors adjacent in vibration and slowly stepped in blends together for grey

3. The after image is the complement (and the primary colors ain’t so primary)

The longer you rest your eyes upon a color, the deeper you are fatiguing your eyes. The eye is seeking neutral. So, after staring at a single color and then looking away, at a white wall per se, you will see a glowing color that is the complement of the color you were staring at. The eye is compensating by activating the opposing color. When you look away, it takes some time for the eyes to re-achieve the neutral balance it seeks, thus: after-image.

Stare at the wheel of color below. Rest your eyes on the center for at least 10 good seconds if not 20, with the mouse already positioned over the circle, click to reveal the after image:

Most of us have seen different examples of this- I remember in high school staring at a strange version of the American Flag and then finding the good old, correctly colored, Red White and Blue flag appearing on a white wall. I prefer to use the preceding example because it makes a second point- that the primaries of light (additive colors) are the complements of the primaries of ink and paint (subtractive colors).

primaries of light are also the complements of cyan magenta and yellow
The after image of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow reveals this combination of Red, Green and Blue that make up the primary colors of light.

The after image is a very distinct Red, Green and Blue. These are the exact complements of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. “Experience always precedes theory” is a motto espoused by the Josef Albers school of color and the most direct way to know a complementary color is to use after-image. Before you believe some folks who would tell you that Red is the complement of Green, check the afterimage. The afterimage does not lie.

And, it does more to prove the case that the color wheel you learned in kindergarten is all wrong. Red is not a primary- Magenta is. Cobalt Blue, the blue you are used to as a primary, is not a primary. Instead, Cyan is. We know that Red and Blue are two of the primaries of light, thus how could they also be the primaries of paint?

4 Replies to “Top 3 Things to Know About Complementary Colors”

  1. Pingback: true color wheel
  2. Great post, Gabe!

    The eye fatigue example dramatically makes your point. Seeing for oneself is so much more compelling than reading the words!

    I’d love to see follow-up posts with similar examples demonstrating that traditional color wheels don’t have the same properties of opposite colors blending to neutral gray, or stimulating their complementary after-image.

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