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The Difference Between Complementary and Analogous Color Schemes

Featuring 90s Vector Watercolor Patterns Set by angelainthefields

Angela Lukanovich April 24, 2023 · 6 min read

There’s something intrinsically emotional about colors and color schemes, right? The way they speak to us is on a different level than shapes and forms, and it feels almost irrational, were it not for the vast knowledge and science of color theory we know today to stand behind it.

So, how do colors entice us, change our feelings, and inspire us? By working together, really. There are two ways that stand out the most, and we call these relationships Complementary and Analogous. A perfectly logical scientific explanation, thanks to Isaac Newton, stands behind this, and we as designers are typically aware of it, but funnily enough, do not always use it consciously.

It serves as a basis for all that we have learned in the various schools we had attended and naturally, throughout the years of experience in designing. But sometimes, it pays to go back to basics and look at colors in this way, as it brings inspiration, ideas, and clarity.

The Color Wheel and Color Harmonies

Remember those wheels of colors you saw in school? Like a rainbow, but organized neatly? Bring that back to the forefront of your memory, as this is what we will be using to explain color schemes today. The color wheel is the foundation of color theory and helps us understand different color relationships.

By the traditional color theory from the 16th century (thanks to Isaac Newton), we divide colors into three distinct groups: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary colors would be your basic red, blue, and yellow that you find in every paint set. Secondary colors would be the colors you can mix by using two primaries: purple, orange, and green. Tertiary colors would be all your colors that sit in between a primary and a secondary – you know those red-violet, yellow-orange, and blue-green shades?

Scientifically, we know objects don’t actually contain any color as such – rather, they deflect light, and we see that light in different ways. If the object absorbs all light frequencies but red, for example, our brain sees the object as red. If it deflects all light, we see it as white. If it absorbs all light – you guessed it – we perceive it as pitch black. Magic!

You can also already see how the colors sitting together on any end of the wheel look very harmonious as opposed to colors that sit opposite to each other. Why is this? Let’s see!

Analogous Color Schemes and Monochromatic Looks

Analogous color schemes are made up of colors that sit together on the color wheel and represent a slice of that wheel. They usually consist of a main color, a supporting color, and an accent color.

Think of shades of reds, pinks, and purples; or a group of bright blues, greens, and turquoise. Because of their similarity and close relationship, they tend to bring about a very homogenous, sometimes even monochromatic look.

Typically, analogous color schemes are the most pleasing to us, as they feel balanced, peaceful, and the most neutral. These color palettes can be used in various design applications, from graphic design to interior design, where different shades and tints create depth and interest while maintaining harmony. The best-known monochromatic look we instantly recognize is a group of blues – which we instantly associate with water, sea, and summer (this is a great article on summer color palettes that prove this point!).

Lately, monochromatic looks have become more trendy, and we can clearly see why – they are calming, pleasing, and contemporary looking. In addition, they play into the current trends of organic, earthy illustrations and images as well – the products below demonstrate this brilliantly.

Complementary Color Schemes: Opposites Attract

Complementary color schemes, on the other hand, are made up of colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel. They consist of a base or dominant color and a contrasting third color that serves as an accent. These schemes tend to be more dynamic and punchy than their analogous counterparts, representing the strongest contrast on the color wheel and therefore making each other pop. Think back to that class in school where you learned about colors: what is the opposite to green again? And what is opposite to yellow?

This is cleverly used in a number of designs – for example, basketball jerseys tend to feature two contrasting colors. Complementary color schemes also serve brilliantly in digital products such as logos and branding, as they catch attention very fast.

The basic complementary color schemes are made up of a primary and a secondary color: red with green, blue with orange, and yellow with purple. In design, though, we tend to pick an attractive color first as a base and find its opposite as an accent instead of going for the basic contrasts.

Opposite color schemes are great to use when you are looking for something more daring or trying to make a certain color on your product pop out more – the gradient trend we have seen lately is a great example of that; by putting two or more opposite colors together in that wispy, ombre look, you end up making both much more vibrant. (p.s. here is an article on how to make your own gradients!).

Triadic and Tetradic Color Schemes

While analogous and complementary color schemes are widely used, other color harmonies like triadic and tetradic color schemes can bring diversity and excitement to your designs. Triadic color schemes involve three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, offering a vibrant yet balanced look. Tetradic color schemes, on the other hand, consist of two pairs of complementary colors, forming a rectangle on the color wheel.

Follow Your Gut

When it comes to choosing colors, always remember the very basics of the color wheel – come back to it, pick one color, and go from there; the options are endless! Designers like Van Gogh have made excellent use of color theory in their art, and you can do the same in your creative projects.

From cool colors to pastel hues, different color combinations can evoke various emotions and atmospheres. Experimenting with saturation, tints, and paint colors can help you create a custom color palette that suits your design needs, whether it’s for a living room, a monochrome graphic, or an eye-catching logo.

At the end of the day, colors will forever be an emotional choice for both designers and consumers. We decide on the kind of feeling we want the product to emanate and choose the colors with the help of that decision. Likewise, consumers look for color schemes that closely match what they are aiming for – a natural, cleaning product? Definitely go for an analogous green-plus-blue scheme. A cool new café? A complementary color scheme in the branding will pull in more customers.

So, go ahead and use analogous colors, complementary colors, or any other color harmony that resonates with your vision. Let your creativity flow and see how these color relationships can elevate your designs and make your work stand out.

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Angela Lukanovich

Like Lucy in the sky, but better. Designer & trend forecaster. DM to book a design intensive. Follow me for retro patterns, graphics &more!

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