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How To Create A Complementary Color Scheme

Are you ever unsure how to create a color scheme? Do you tend to use color directly from the tube because you don’t know what to mix it with to get the results you want? One of the most-asked questions I get is “How do I create a color scheme?”

It’s helpful to begin by understanding the standard 12-hue color wheel which I discussed in this article. This color wheel is generally accepted as the best basis for creating harmonious color schemes with pigments. In harmonious color schemes. the colors work together rather than fight each other.

Ultimately, knowledge of the full scope of color theory is desired to be able to master the use color in your designs and artwork. But it’s by using color that you come to understand the theory. Therefore, color mixing is necessary to become familiar with what color does and how to make it work for you. No matter what medium you work in — watercolor, acrylic, oil, pastel, markers, or digital — color mixing pretty much works the same way.


You cannot develop skill with color without going through a trial and error process.


Color is the most complex and multi-layered design element. So be patient with yourself as you dive in and begin learning. Be willing to fail in your attempts, but make those failures work for you as you develop skill. You cannot develop skill with color without going through a trial and error process. A lot of color mixing is “eyeballing”, and it’s something you become better at with experience.


Create A Complementary Color Scheme

One of the more effective and versatile color schemes you can use in illustration and design is the complementary palette. Complementary schemes are useful when depicting portraits, landscapes and still lifes. They’re effective in advertising, branding and marketing.

When you mix the three primaries together, you achieve a neutral gray, and on the way to that gray you can achieve all sorts of muddy colors. Complementary hue pairs contain the 3 primaries. So when you mix any pair of complements, you can create the same colors as when blending the 3 primaries.

If you carefully observe the natural world you will see complementary color relationships in action all around you. Most green foliage is slightly neutralized by red. Green leaves often have red accents in them. Rose leaves are very red when they first appear and then become fully green as they mature. Here’s a shot of a rose bush in my front yard, in all its red-green glory (and that’s not including the blossoms):




What makes a complementary palette versatile? The fact that when placed next to each other, complementary colors enhance each other’s vibrancy, and when blended together, they create rich browns, earth tones and true grays. You get a wide range of colors to work with, and by mixing these colors with black and white, you can exponentially expand the number of colors you have to work with.


Try This Color Mixing Exercise Using Complements

Complementary schemes are also a good way to learn to control color. Working with complements forces you to blend colors carefully. I recommend that you explore color through color mixing exercises and then apply what you learned to your art and design. Don’t try to figure things out while working on an actual project. Take the time to explore your medium before committing to a larger work.

Think of color mixing exercises in the way a musician uses scales. It’s a warm-u,p and also teaches you how notes sound. Color also works in scales and chords. Learn what color does through warm-up exercises. Here is a useful exercise to help you learn how complementary colors mix:

Step 1) On heavy white paper, watercolor paper or illustration board, draw a row of 7 squares.

Step 2) Select a pair of fully-saturated complements. Place each color in separate paint cups.

Step 3) In Square 1, paint a color at full intensity. This is Color A.

Step 4) In Square 7, paint the complementary color at full intensity. This is Color B.

Step 5) Divide both Color A and Color B into 2 separate paint cups. You’ll use the duplicates for steps 9 and 10.

Step 6) Mix a little of Color B into Color A and paint the second square with the new color.

Step 7) Mix more of Color B into the Color A-B mixture and paint Square 3.

Step 8) Mix enough of Color B into the Color A-B mixture to create a true gray. That’s the true neutral. Fill Square 4 — the center square — with this color.

Step 9) Mix a little of Color A into Color B (the original saturated color) and paint Square 6.

Step 10) Mix more of Color A into Color B and paint Square 5.

Here is what this exercise looks like in gouache, using green (blue+yellow) and red:

7-step red-green neutralization in gouache

Limit Your Color Palette

A limited palette is any set of colors that does not include a full spectrum. The complementary palette is one type of limited palette. You can include colors that are not the complements, but use them as accents. Use a range of saturated and neutralized colors, and tints, shades and tones, within the complementary scheme.  For example, you can create a satisfying red-green complementary scheme using olive green, oxide of chromium, sap green, permanent green light, raw umber, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, Bengal rose, Venetian red, permanent white, and ivory black. (Refer to Winsor & Newton’s gouache color chart). I used Professional Artist Grade Watercolour Paint by Winsor & Newton to create this quick complementary color scheme study:



Color schemes for representational art will most likely include neutrals and grays. Only using fully-saturated colors or colors straight from the tube can reveal a lack of training and artistic “maturity”.  First learn how color works, and then you can use it expressively.


Digital Color Schemes

I mentioned earlier that selecting color schemes in digital media is similar to selecting them in pigment color. Although a different medium and color system, complementary mixing is the same. This is a screen capture of Photoshops’ color picker, with green on one side and red (magenta) on the other, and the range of grays, tints and shades that are possible. Note that the picked color indicted by the circle is the gray created when the complements are blended. Note also how green ranges cooler at the top of the picker screen and warmer toward the center, and red does the same on the opposite edge. Neutral grays are center, ranging from light up top to dark at the bottom. This color picker window is a piece of a larger color model.

Here is a digital complementary mixing chart using blue and orange. The rows below the spectrum show 7 selected colors, and tints, shades and tones of those seven. We begin to achieve quite a range of color when we blend in white and black.


Since complements are direct opposites in character and position on the hue circle, you can creating striking focal points and even communicate an abstract concept using color alone as in this old print ad for Dodge Ram trucks:



I discuss how to create schemes through color selection, and how to apportion colors within a scheme.  Because of its complexity, you need to understand more than color relationships if you want to choose effective palettes.

What questions do you have about creating color schemes? Ask in the comments below, and your question may become the topic of a future article or training.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.