While the world of interior design is obviously rich in creativity, imagination, and “breaking the rules” when it comes to laying out a home, the truth of the matter is that there are some very solid fundamental basics of interior design – like the color wheel, for example – that inform a lot of the decisions made by wildly creative experts.
In fact, some would argue that an understanding and reliance on the color wheel (and other design fundamentals) is what separates the designs created by interior professionals from those that are put together by well-intentioned amateurs.
Those without a solid understanding of these basics can create very exciting interiors, but they lack a little bit of that cohesiveness and design magic that understanding and appreciating complementary colors – and how they work in the overall approach to design – brings to the table.
Below we dive deeper into everything you should know about complementary colors, tertiary colors, analogous colors and the way that these different approaches to color theory can either bring about total color harmonies or wreak havoc with color combinations that just don’t play well with one another.
You’ll have a better understanding of everything that interior design professionals are able to draw from when they go about creating a new color palette for an interior space. You’ll also better understand color psychology, how color theory in general works from a practical standpoint, and why you won’t find a single working interior design professional that doesn’t keep at least a handful of color wheels close by when they are putting a project together.
Ready to dive right in?
Let’s get right to it!
Color Theory 101
Before we dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of complementary color schemes, the value of complementary pairs and contrasting colors, and how powerful composition efforts can be put together when you are working from the color wheel (and within the bounds of color theory) it’s important to cover the fundamental basics of this interior design principle.
If you haven’t been involved in the interior design profession you might be surprised to learn that color theory is a legitimate science behind how we as human beings interpret and respond to (a number of different levels) to the individual colors that we see and experience in the world around us.
This approach looks to quantify not only how we respond to individual colors but also how we respond to different color combinations, proportions of different colors, and how our brains and emotions are hardwired to respond to the colors that we interact with on a day-to-day basis.
The color wheel is the most foundational aspect of Color Theory, with the very first color wheel in human history believed to have been invented by Sir Isaac Newton (the genius behind the theory of gravity).
That initial color wheel was a little bit basic in its initial conception, but the concept has expanded and grown over time (with input from both scientists and artists) to better understand the relationship that we all have with unique colors.
Colors in the color wheel move throughout the full spectrum of visible color from and RGB color standpoint, with disparate colors and disparate shades moving throughout the spectrum until everything sort of blends into everything else and then circles back again.
The wheel allows for the creation of specific color combinations that work wonders with one another, particularly when it’s broken into primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.
Primary colors are identified as the three major colors that cannot be created by mixing the other two colors together – Red, Yellow, and Blue. Then you have your secondary colors that can be created by mixing two different primary colors – Orange, Green, and Purple.
When it comes to tertiary colors, however, you’re talking about colors that can be made by mixing a secondary color with a primary color. Others say that tertiary colors are created by mixing two different primary colors with a secondary color to create something else entirely. At the end of the day, these colors do not belong to either the primary or secondary aspects of the color wheel.
Your most common tertiary colors are yellow/orange, red/orange, red/violet, blue/violet, blue/green, and yellow/green.
All of these different components of the color wheel bring us to the ability to create complementary colors, some of the most pleasing colors to the eye and some of the most popular color combinations for interior designers to work with.
Understanding Complementary Colors
In the most basic of sentences, complementary colors can be described as the individual hues that are intertwined and intermixed with one another because they set at complete opposite ends from each other on the color wheel.
This is where you see red and green complementary colors, blue and orange complementary colors, and purple and yellow complementary colors. Interestingly enough, these colors do not mix well with one another at all (mixing these complementary colors together almost always creates a very muddy black or brown kind of color) though they work perfectly – and in real harmony – when they are used individually in combination with each other.
On top of that, color psychology shows us that the human eye has a very easy time interpreting complementary colors when they are placed next to one another. They create a distinct visual effect when these colors are lined up beside one another, and if they are allowed to touch one another when they intersect there’s a real blending and harmony – even though these colors exist at total opposite ends of the color wheel spectrum.
Analogous colors are similar to complementary colors in the way that they work harmoniously with one another, but aren’t necessarily complementary. Instead these colors are located along the same radius on the color wheel with this term usually used to describe a pairing of three different colors that sit right next to each other on that spectrum.
You might have analogous colors that are red/violet, violet, and then blue/violet that work wonders with one another and have the same kind of emotional response that complementary colors have even though they do not sit opposite one another on the color wheel.
Triadic color combinations are also similar to complementary colors in that they are three different colors that sit equidistant from one another on the color wheel. Think of this as adding a third leg to the opposite ends of complementary colors and you come up with the triadic combination.
Basically, instead of drawing a straight line across the color wheel to find complementary colors you be drawing a perfect triangle to hit all three spots of this triad.
Why Use Complementary Colors?
There are a number of different reasons that you want to choose complementary colors as an interior design professional when pulling off a new project, with the most popular reasons highlighted below.
At the end of the day, however, the overarching benefit you get with this kind of color theory approach comes from the fact that these colors have the ability to create such a strong emotional response in the overwhelming majority of people that visualize them.
There’s real drama, interest, and energy created with complementary colors that you aren’t going to be able to coax out of other types of color combinations.
Complementary Colors are Pleasing to the Eye
If you’re looking to create a warm, welcoming, and inviting space that is immediately understood as such it’s always a good idea to go with a complementary color palette.
The different type of cones inside of our eyes (the photoreceptor cells actually inside of our eyeballs) are able to perceive different individual colors of light.
Staring at a single block of color over a long stretch of time can become taxing, can become fatiguing, and can really start to wear on your mind as well as your emotions. This is why monochromatic spaces look great at first glance but can become very uncomfortable over time.
On top of that, the photoreceptors inside of our eyes are also able to play tricks on our mind with the way that they interpret colors over time as well. If you stare at a single color for an extended amount of time and then quickly look away and focus on a white wall or white space you’ll see the reverse color produced – the complementary color – in your mind’s eye.
This goes to highlight the dynamic range that complementary colors have with one another.
Each color in a combination is going to be able to play up the overall intensity of the other, really adding to the overall impact that the colors chosen bring to the table. This is why you see complementary colors used so often in interior design but also why you see it in fashion, in marketing and advertising, and especially in things like sports uniforms and the like.
Another big benefit of using complementary pairs is that you are going to be able to create visual tension or the relief of that tension inside of an interior space without having to make any other changes whatsoever.
A space can feel brighter and more exciting when a splash of orange is added into a sea of blue rather than feeling calm, relaxing, and almost washed out if it was left to be decorated entirely in different shades of blue.
This little bit of simultaneous contrast adds a lot of visual interest to a space, with the eye naturally drawn to the complementary color (particularly when it is added in a more minimalist approach).
All of a sudden a very small design element has a major impact on the interior design plan, allowing for those operating on a budget to make very creative choices that have outsized influences on the overall design than they would have otherwise.
Think About the Interplay Created
Whether you choose to use primary colors, secondary colors, or a combination of primary, secondary and tertiary colors to create your color palette in a new interior design project it’s important that you always think about the interplay created between these complementary colors and the impact they’ll have on the human mind when someone enters a space.
Warm colors work well with other warm complementary colors, cool colors work well with other cool colors, but the most powerful composition interior design experts are able to create always comes about when they play with the spaces in between diametric opposites.
A color palette can be predominantly cool for a space but will immediately be elevated into something much more visually interesting with the introduction of complementary warm colors. The opposite approach works wonders as well.
When you get right down to it, you don’t want to find yourself only thinking about the colors that you are adding as strictly colors themselves. Instead you need to think of them as moods, emotions, and design elements themselves that will either elevate or suppress the overall design you are looking to build.
Not all complementary colors are going to work wonders for a space that you are creating (pulling off a yellow and purple space inside of the kitchen may be challenging, for example) but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways that you can use complementary colors to set the tone and change the atmosphere of a space all the same.
Lean on the color wheel, trust your color vision, and don’t be afraid to play around with the preconceived notions of color theory to come up with color mixing combinations that allow you to really put your own stamp on a design project.
There’s a lot more going on under the hood when you’re dealing with different color concepts. But as long as you focus on the fundamentals of complementary color schemes, really understand how contrasting colors and simultaneous contrast works, and how to use these different aspects of the color wheel to increase the energy in a space you shouldn’t have anything to worry about going forward!