Learn the Basics of Contrasting Colors on the Color Wheel

Use opposite colors to create complementary color pairs

Two colors from different segments of the color wheel are contrasting colors (also known as complementary or clashing colors). For example, red is from the warm half of the color wheel and blue is from the cool half. They are contrasting colors.

In science and color theory, there are precise definitions for contrasting and complementary colors and how they appear on the color wheel. In graphic design and some other fields, we use a looser interpretation. Colors don't have to be direct opposites or have a set amount of separation to be considered contrasting or complementary. In design, it's more about perception and feeling. 

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You may also see these opposite colors referred to as complementary colors, which generally refers to each of a pair of colors that are directly or almost directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as purple and yellow.

Reds and greens are contrasting colors. The more transitional colors separating two colors, the greater the contrast. For example, magenta and orange are not as high contrast a pair as magenta and yellow or magenta and green.

Colors that are directly opposite from one another are said to clash — although this clashing or high contrast is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of these high contrast, complementary, clashing colors are quite pleasing.

Using Contrasting Colors

Common color combinations that use two, three, or four contrasting colors are described as complementary, double complementary, triad, and split-complementary color schemes.

Each additive primary color (RGB) pairs up nicely with a complementary subtractive (CMY) color to create pairs of contrasting colors. Vary the shades of additional complementary colors with less contrast.

  • Red (additive) and aqua/cyan (subtractive)
  • Green (additive) and fuchsia/magenta (subtractive)
  • Blue (additive) and yellow (subtractive)

In a 12-color RGB color wheel. red, green, and blue are the three primary colors. The three subtractive colors of cyan, magenta, and yellow are the secondary colors. The six tertiary colors (a mix of a primary color with its closest secondary color) are orange, chartreuse, spring green, azure, violet, and rose.

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