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The Difference Between Complementary and Analogous Color Schemes

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Angela Lukanovich August 11, 2021 · 6 min read

There is something intrinsically emotional about colors and color schemes, don’t you think? 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 we know today to stand behind it.

So how do colors entice us, change our feelings, inspire us? By working together, really. There are two ways that stand out to us the most and we call these relationships Complementary and Analogous. A perfectly logical scientific explanation 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 Basics

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. Here it is below if you need a quick refresher:

By the traditional color theory from the 16th century (thanks to Isaac Newton), we divide colors into three distinct groups: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primaries would be your basic red, blue, and yellow that you find in every paint set. Secondaries would be the colors you can mix by using two primaries: purple, orange, and green. Tertiaries would be all your colors that sit in between a primary and a secondary – you know those purples that look a bit red? Or the blue that’s a bit green? That’s your tertiaries.

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

These color schemes are made up of colors that sit together and represent a slice of that wheel we have seen up there.

Think of shades of reds, pinks, and purples; or a group of bright blues, greens, and turquoise. Because of their similarity, they tend to bring about a very homogenous, sometimes even monochromatic look. When using these color schemes, there is usually a main color with a couple of accents alongside.

Typically, analogous color schemes are the most pleasing to us as they feel balanced, peaceful, and the most neutral. Likewise, these are the color schemes that we generally find in nature as well, which possibly points to why they feel the most natural to us. 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 illustration and images as well – the products below demonstrate this brilliantly.

Complementary Color Schemes

Now, these schemes are a completely different animal altogether. If analogous colors were sisters, then these might be more like second cousins, twice removed – diametrically opposite, but still related somehow. Quite literally opposite as well, as they sit opposite each other on the color wheel. 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?

Complementary color schemes tend to be more dynamic and a good measure more punchy than their analogous counterparts. They represent the strongest contrast on the color wheel and therefore make each other pop, giving your artwork a vibrant, modern look. This is cleverly used in a number of designs – for example, basketball jerseys tend to feature two contrasting colors. These 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!).

Follow Your Gut

At the end of the day, colors will forever be an emotional choice to both designers as well as 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 of the branding will pull in more customers.

But if you are ever stuck choosing your 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!

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Angela Lukanovich

Master of the wonky line! Designer & vintage trend forecaster. DM for bespoke work or access to my exclusive use print library. Follow me for retro patterns &more!

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  • Nice informative article. 2 months ago