Complementary colours: everything you need to know

31 January 2020
You won't believe how important it is to know when to use complementary colours in your card making! Find out why you should use complementary colours with a free download too.

We've all been there - it's a rainy afternoon, Karen's birthday is coming up and she's had a rough year so you want to do something special for her. Her favourite colour is green, so let's have a sort through the stash and see what's going to work. Then that feeling of dread hits you... what goes with green?!

Panic not, dear reader! We're here to save the day and give you the lowdown on colour in art and answer your questions: what are complementary colours? How do complementary colours work? And why do we use complementary colours in the first place?

What are complementary colours?

Simply put, 'complementary colours' are colours most opposite each other on the colour wheel. Here's a basic colour wheel to show you exactly which colours complement each other best.

Colour wheel

Download your free colour wheel HERE!

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How do complementary colours work?

The whole idea behind using complementary colours is about making something as visually appealing as possible. It can be quite tricky to use complementary colours without making a colour scheme that's too jarring. You want your art to be eye-catching for all the right reasons after all! 

complementary colors

Why use complementary colours? 

To make something look good, of course! The importance of colour combinations can be traced all the way back to Aristotle, who said "when light falls upon another color, then, as a result of this new combination, it takes on another nuance of color." Enlightening! Here are just some examples of what you can achieve with complementary colours. 

Purple and yellow

Purple and yellow

Blue and orange

blue and orange

Red and green

red and green


What's good to remember when you're wanting to use complementary colours is that the ones you end up using are often not the ones you expect to work together. Say 'purple and yellow' in a sentence and it just doesn't sound right. Looking at it as an artist? Perfection. 

Are contrasting and complementary colours the same thing?

Not exactly. While you use complementary colours to produce a colour palette of contrasting colours, it's a little stronger than that. Confused? Don't worry, it gets easier.

Did you know there's something called Colour Theory? Yep, it's a thing! Colour Theory is all about creating logical structures for colour. There are five key forms of colour palette creation recognised by Colour Theory.


Complementary coloursAnalogous coloursTriadic colours

                     Split complementary colours        Tetradic Colours

Contrasting colours are 'split complementary' colours, where you would match one main colour (teal) with two less prominent colours (pink and orange) in your art, making contrasting colours essentially a softer version of complementary colours. If you want to make a statement, but use two colours to highlight one colour, rather than highlight both colours equally, you're looking for contrast or split complementary, not complementary. Simple! 

When to use complementary colours?

Whenever you like! If you're really wondering WHAT colours complement each other best, we've been doing our own bit of research into the meanings behind colours and what colours complement each other the best. 

There's a huge range of meaning behind different colours and what they can mean when you use them in your art, so if you're looking to convey feelings from playfulness to maturity, calmness to confidence, check out our list of colours and just some of their many meanings below...

Complementary colours


Colour theory blue

Complements: Reds and oranges. 


Colour Theory green

Complements: Pinks and reds.


Colour Theory Yellow

Complements: Purple, pinks and reds.


Colour theory orange

Complements: Blues and purples


Colour Theory Red

Complements: Greens and blues


Colour theory Pink

Complements: Greens and yellows


Colour theory purple

Complements: Greens and yellows

It doesn't matter what kind of artist you are, knowing when to use complementary colours is essential for creating any kind of art that's going to pop! Knowing why complementary colours are used will make you a better artist - understating your creations is key to making vibrant art.

If you're wondering where to start with working with complementary colours, why not download the free Stripes and Flowers Craft Paper Collection and see how the most unexpected colour pairings can make the most beautiful papercraft projects?

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