Complementary and Analogous Color Schemes :: Digital Photo Secrets

Complementary and Analogous Color Schemes

by David Peterson 0 comments

Don’t let the title of this week’s lesson scare you—complementary and analogous color schemes are just big names for simple concepts. As long as you have access to a color wheel, you can easily put together color schemes based on these basic ideas.

Since you do need that color wheel, at least until you’ve committed it to memory, here it is again:

Choosing a color scheme is actually an almost mathematical process. Certain colors just work together, and you can figure out which ones based on their relative positions on the color wheel. Colors that are adjacent to each other, for example, are analogous colors. Colors that are opposite one another are complementary colors. When you combine colors according to their relative position on the color wheel, you get color schemes that have a very powerful positive impact on your images.

Complementary colors

Also called “contrasting colors,” complementary colors are used to make bold statements. Since these colors are opposite one another on the color wheel, combining them makes the two colors stand out from each other, or “pop” as artists and photographers often like to say. Complementary color schemes are actually quite common in nature. For example, a red rose against green foliage makes a very strong, eye-catching combination, as does an orange flower placed against the backdrop of a bright blue sky. But you don’t have to look just to nature to find complementary color schemes, they are everywhere in the man-made world as well. You can even stage at complementary color schemes – I promise, no one will know.

  • Fujifilm FinePix E550
  • 100
  • f/4.7
  • 0.002 sec (1/420)
  • 20.2 mm

a loto stand by Flickr user baboonâ„¢

Using complementary colors well does take a certain amount of discretion—you can't just throw two complementary colors together and expect them to always work in a compelling way. I wish it was that simple. But because complementary colors are sort of both equals and opposites, they’re going to compete for attention if you use them in equal amounts. Now, this may actually work for certain subject matters, but remember that when you compose an image with equal amounts of two complementary colors you will need to rely on other factors to direct your viewer’s attention. Remember that visually “heavier” colors will draw attention before lighter colors do, and that line and placement can also have a strong influence on what part of an image receives the most attention from your viewer. Another thing to keep in mind is whether or not a color “advances” or “recedes.”

Some colors advance and some recede, which means pretty much exactly what it sounds like it means. Generally speaking, cooler colors recede, while warmer colors advance. If you place a red rose over green foliage, the red will appear to advance towards you, while the green recedes into the background. If you do the opposite, however, and place the green in front of the red, you’re going to get an image that looks weird and maybe even hurts your head a little. That’s because even when the green is in front of the red, it will continue to recede, making it appear that the forward placed object is being sucked into or consumed by whatever is in the background.

  • Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd
  • 100
  • f/2.8
  • 0.071 sec (1/14)
  • 6.2 mm

red green by Flickr user ms.Tea

This play between colors is also a problem when you use them together in a small, repeating pattern. That’s why a red and green checkerboard is probably going to hurt your eyes to the extent that you can’t keep looking at it—those colors are just too bold and too close together to behave harmoniously.

    Color Wheel - Complementary Colors by Flickr user thirtydaysweater

    If you’re having some trouble getting complementary colors to work in equal amounts, consider choosing a dominant color and using its complementary color as an accent or supporting color. Try combining them in thirds—give your dominant color 2/3rds of the frame and assign the other 1/3rd to the accent color. Or make the accent color a very small splash of color in one part of the frame—even small amounts of bold color will attract the eye as long as they’re skillfully combined with a dominant color.

    Analagous colors

    Only the very fashion-daring among us feel comfortable combining complementary colors in an outfit. If you’re like the average Joe, you probably feel more comfortable with colors that are closer to one another on the color wheel. These are called analogous colors, and in photography as well as in fashion they tend to be the safest choice for a color scheme. To find analogous colors, look at your color wheel and then choose three colors that are adjacent to one another on the wheel. This could be purple combined with blue-purple and purple-red, for example, or it could be green combined with neighbors blue-green and yellow-green.

      Color Wheel - Analogous Colors by Flickr user thirtydaysweater

      Analogous colors aren't as bold as complementary color schemes, so in a way that makes them easier to use. You can use analogous colors in pairs, or you can use them in trios—any combination works, though combinations of three colors tend to be the most striking. With analogous color schemes, it’s harder to get away with combining colors in equal amounts. Definitely select a dominant color and an accent or supporting color when creating an analogous color scheme. If you’re using three colors, try to include unequal quantities of each.

      Analogous color schemes are harmonious and soothing, in contrast to complementary color schemes which are bold and attention-getting. One is not preferable to the other – choose the one that best fits the mood you are trying to project.

      • Canon EOS 400D Digital
      • 1600
      • f/5.6
      • 0.004 sec (1/250)
      • 55 mm

      big, bold and purple by Flickr user miss pupik

      Advanced color schemes

      I’m sure it will not surprise you to hear that combining complementary colors or analogous colors are not the only two ways to create a color scheme. Let’s go back to our color wheel for a moment and draw a triangle in the center of it. Each point of the triangle will land on a color, and the three colors under each point can be combined to use to create a triadic color scheme. Triadic color schemes are very similar to complementary color schemes in that they are vibrant and attract the attention of your viewer, but they are not quite as bold as complementary color schemes, and seem to have more balance. Again, for effective use of a triadic color scheme, choose one color as your dominant color, and use the other two as supporting or accent colors.

        Color Wheel - Triadic Colors by Flickr user thirtydaysweater

        • Canon EOS 40D
        • 100
        • f/8.0
        • 0.033 sec (1/30)
        • 100 mm

        More crocus by Flickr user Benson Kua

        You can also combine colors according to a split complementary color scheme. With split complementary, you take one color and combine it with the two colors that are adjacent to its opposite. This color scheme has good contrast but is less bold and attention-getting than a strict complementary scheme. Complementary color schemes always contain a little bit of tension between the two main colors, while split complementary color schemes are a little more harmonious.

          Color Wheel - Split Complementary Colors by Flickr user thirtydaysweater

          • Nikon D50
          • 200
          • f/2.2
          • 0.005 sec (1/200)
          • 50 mm

          loving orange & blue by Flickr user SurprisePally

          Now that we’ve graduated from combinations of three colors, let’s try a color scheme that uses a combination of four different colors. Tetradic color schemes (also called “double complementary”) can be found by drawing a rectangle in your color wheel, and using the colors under the points of the rectangle in a composition. Basically, this is just combining two different complementary pairs that appear 60 degrees from each other on the color wheel. This is one of the more challenging color schemes to get right, because there are so many complementary colors in the scene that it can start to feel a little overwhelming if you don’t combine the colors in the right amounts. Again, choose a single dominant color and add the other three as accent colors, taking care not to overwhelm any one color with any other color. This is a good color scheme to use with colors that aren’t so bright—try adjusting the color saturation of your image if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed by your results.

          You don’t have to stick with just those complementary color schemes that are placed on the corners of that rectangle, you can also come up with a tetradic color scheme by drawing a square in the center of the wheel, and using the colors that land under the points of the square.

            Color Wheel - Tetradic Colors by Flickr user thirtydaysweater

            • Canon EOS Kiss Digital N
            • 200
            • f/2.8
            • 0.008 sec (1/125)
            • 200 mm

            These are your fall colors by Flickr user jasohill


            Playing around with color schemes can actually be really fun, once you get over that fear that a lot of us seem to have about bold color combinations. Remember that you can try just about anything, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to keep it—you don’t even have to show it to anyone. I think once you start working with these color schemes you’re going to fear them a lot less—they’re proven to work, and it’s just going to take trying them out in your own work before you’ll discover that they work for you, too.

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            Nov 2016 Dash
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