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Complementary Colours: A short guide on colour theory for beginners

Updated: Apr 2

With complementary colours you can make your artwork sing. This blog post will chat you through the basics of colour theory for beginners.


What is a complementary colour?

Complementary colours are pairs of colours that, when combined, create contrast and harmony due to their placement opposite each other on the colour wheel. This relationship creates a dynamic visual impact that can be used effectively in various design applications.

Understanding how complementary colours work together allows artists to effectively manipulate the mood and atmosphere of their work.

A pattern that features red squirrels, pink hearts and green leaves on a teal blue background
One of my patterns that uses complementary colours: a reddy orange and teal blue

How to find complementary colours

To find complementary colours, you just have to look on the colour wheel. Here's a really simple one:

The colour wheel
The colour wheel

The colours that are the most complementary are opposite one another. For example, green and orange work really well together. Blue and yellow. If you want a more comprehensive colour wheel, there are thousands on Google, so that's definitely worth a look!

Warm and Cool Tones

Warm and cool tones play a significant role in setting the mood and evoking specific emotions in art and design. Warm tones, such as reds, oranges, and yellows, are associated with energy, passion, and vibrancy. They tend to advance visually, making them ideal for creating focal points or conveying a sense of warmth and intimacy.

Looking up through four bare trees, you see a flock of birds flying above and a cool blue sky with hints of pink
One of my cool toned pieces. I wanted everything to feel fresh, like a winter's day

In contrast, cool tones, including blues, greens, and purples, evoke feelings of calmness, serenity, and tranquility. Cool tones have a receding effect, making them suitable for creating depth and establishing a sense of space in compositions.

By understanding the psychological effects of warm and cool tones, artists and designers can effectively communicate their intended messages and elicit specific emotional responses from their audience.

In general, cool tones go together, and warm tones go together. Most of the time, combining the two can result in a sense of dissonance that is not quite right.

You can also get different tones within one colour. For example, blue is generally seen as a cool colour, but if you add yellow to it, it becomes warmer. A cool tone usually has a blue undertone, a warm one yellow.

A book that I highly recommend for a more in depth look at the psychology of colour is Karen Haller's Little Book of Colour.

The Seasons

Colours can also be linked to the seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. It is said that most people fall into one or two of these categories in regard to preference. I personally am an autumn, but I also fall into Spring, with its bright, playful shades.

A screen grab of my procreate app, showing the colour palettes I've built
My colour palettes on Procreate, based on the seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter

Application of Colour Theory

Colour theory is not just essential for artists and designers to understand, but is also very useful to know if you're redecorating, or even planning what to wear.

Choose colours that are opposite one another on the colour wheel for a real sense of harmony, and try to stay in one colour family: warm or cool.

If you want to feel happy and playful, pick spring tones. Fancy feeling a bit cosier? Autumn colours are for you.

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at colour theory! An artist and illustrator that I think uses colour theory particularly well is Georgia Camden, click here to read her interview and see her work on my blog.

As always, thank you for reading!


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