Inspiring colour editorial from MIX Magazine.

For too long, complementary shades have been considered safe and perhaps unsophisticated. Now though, a risk-averse global market is bringing these classic combinations once more to the fore.



In colour theory, complementary colours are simply opposite each other on a colour wheel. The effect of adjacent complementaries is the intensification of both colours; as such they both complement and enhance each other. There’s a simplicity to this message that has endeared complementaries to those who want a quick fix when it comes to colour.

Just think about the red and green of every Christmas display ever and you get the general idea.



Like primaries, complementaries have suffered from a certain lack of kudos in the design world, especially in the last decade. The prevalence of colour combinations where layer upon layer of tonal and analogous colours creates soothing harmonies has dominated. This, along with a deliberate maximalist play with sharply dissonant groupings has done the complementary cause no favours.



That’s not always been the case however. Complementaries played a starring role in the development of Impressionist and post-Impressionist palettes, followed swiftly by Fauvism. If you look at the deconstructed shadows in many of these paintings, complementary colours are laid next to each other, violet next to yellow, brilliantly evoking sunlight and shade. Van Gogh’s paintings too are master classes in the use of complementary hues, the purple of irises against a background of yellow, orange sunflowers against a deep Prussian blue.



This appeal isn’t just cultural but also scientific. The photoreceptors that facilitate colour vision see the colours of light differently.

The classic experiment of staring at a block of colour then glancing at a white wall delivers a glimpse of complementary colour. This is because when your eyes are tired, they suppress the visual spectrum, processing what you see as the complementary shade of the block of colour you are initially looking at.



Cyclical as colour trends often are, it was inevitable that complementary hues should suddenly start to feel fresh again. The resurgence of these combinations tracks alongside the continuing revisiting of 80’s fashion. Add the importance of Instagram where a bold palette is a scroll stopper. We’re also seeing interior brands following suit, from complementary backdrops as seen in Ogeborg, SCP and Pedrali, to full commitment to the theory in brands such as Missana and Pluck.



This rehabilitation of complementary colours is a gift to designers because, like a failsafe recipe, these combinations always deliver. And, in the current challenging global outlook it seems highly likely that there will be less of an appetite for combinations that are too dissonant or demanding. So, in the end, it’s worth remembering that with complementaries, there’s no need to persuade consumers to go on a complex journey of discovery.

Our eyes are literally programmed to find these shades pleasing.



MIX Magazine is a quarterly print and digital publication by our creative agency, Colour Hive and is available as part of Colour Hive membership.


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Image credits from top:

Pedrali, photo Andrea Garuti | Ogeborg | Faudet-Harrison for SCP | Missana | Hay | Missana | Pedrali, photo Andrea Garuti | Woud