Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Color Theory In Your Closet: Complementary Color Schemes

Coral/Tangerine with Two Complementary Blue Jackets

First, a definition. The terms 'complementary' and 'opposite' really mean the same thing when it comes to color theory. They refer to colors which are straight across from each other along the diameter of the color wheel. In other words, if you draw a straight line across the color wheel but only slice off a little sliver that is not a complementary relationship. Complementary colors are the colors at either end of a line that cuts your color circle in half. This is what we mean when we say colors are opposite each other.

 Complementary color schemes use hues which sit opposite each other on the color wheel, as do the outfits in our first example. This gorgeous chiffon dress contains orange, fushcia, gold, ivory, and olive green tones. I pulled out the dominant tangerine color to select two jackets in orange's traditional opponent color: blue. In the look on the left the color scheme is varied by using a baby blue which is much less saturated than the tangerine. The accessories echo the tangerine, and as the blue is so lightly saturated this outfit comes across as an orange outfit with the baby blue in a neutral role.

orange and royal blue (the blue on the left) are strict opposites (as in the tangerine dress and the riding jacket). yet the warmer blue (the book on the right) works just as well (as in teh tangerind dress and the soft blue jacket).

In the outfit on the right, the blue is just as saturated as the tangerine in the dress. Any time you use the colors in a scheme at the same saturation, the eye will focus on the relationship between those two colors more than on other features of the outfit. The beautiful asymmetric shape of this riding jacket was just a lovely bonus! I kept the focus on the battling colors of tangerine and royal blue by using neutral accessories. Booties, cuff, and earrings all have a woven or basket weave texture, which i liked against the printed chiffon. The ultra-high heel on the booties and color toned to skin will compensate for any leg-shortening effect of the high vamp.

But how many times do you have pieces which happen to live exactly opposite one another on the color wheel? What do you do if you don't have the exact opposites? To answer question one is - more often than you might think. One rule of color theory is this: If you can wear a color well, you will wear it's exact opposite on the color wheel equally well. Since this rule applies whether you know it or not, you will often have opposites in your wardrobe because they both look great on you so you've purchased them over the years. This rule works wonders for expanding your wardrobe color palette as well. Take all of the colors you love, locate them on the color wheel and find their opposites. If you don't like the opposites as much but like the way they punch up your faves, use the complementaries in less saturated or shaded colors.
Coral Dress with Complementary Jackets: Green & Blue

Neither of the toppers in the second polyvore picture are exact opposites to the coral  of this sculptural sheath. The jade green of the coat is over to the yellow side of exact opposite, but that warmth is present in the dress as well. Both pieces are made of a flat textured fabric with similar drape, and both have a little grey overwash. All of these elements help to tie the pieces together. I liked the color story so much i chose jade for most of the accessories, varying textures for interest. Can you believe those cuffs!?!?! Elbow length sleeves with mis-matched cuffs is a great look on anyone, and truly outstanding if you are long, slender and graceful in the wrists and hands. I couldn't resist the way the bows on those patent leather pumps echoed the draping on the dress' hips. Of all the looks i've been creating for this series, this is the one outfit i'm very sorry is not in my closet!

the jade of the coat lies between these two colors (aqua and grass green), which in turn veer to the warm side of this orange's true opposite hue

The outfit on the right also goes to show that "close enough is often good enough" when it comes to choosing color opposites. The Chanel style jacket's blue is nicely balanced between warm and cold. I really liked the similar textures on the jacket and purse, and the clutch functions as the main accessory in this look with it's strong color, pattern, and texture. I chose neutrally colored pumps and earrings in order to let the clutch shine. However, small gold details on earrings and pumps tie them in to the clutch with it's gold chain strap. The gold details also lend a bit more finish for when you're out on the dance floor sans clutch and jacket. The truly observant (and the foot fetishist) will be rewarded with tiny skulls returning their curiosity, right above your tootsies. Details make all the difference.

Again, the royal blue of the Chanel-style jacket is between the two blue books on this color wheel, which is to the cool side of this coral's exact complementary color 

I hope that these examples help you see that you can 'tweak' color schemes to suit your closet, what's out there in the stores, even your own tastes. Take a look around at different color schemes that catch your eye and see if some of them are tweaked or do not adhere exactly to the rules. Do you like them better than standard interpretations or not? Practicing identifying color schemes, saturation, warmth and coolness, and so on in your surroundings and in media is the best, quickest way to hone your eyes and increase your skills. The basic principles aren't that complicated, but you can get so many variables interacting that two similar schemes come across very differently. Just take it bit by bit and you'll learn.

Off topic, i have to say that i've been plagued by some truly wretched earworms of late. BE WARNED: none of the links in this paragraph are realistically safe for work! First, i watched a video of Bohemian Rhapsody (good lord, ole Fred in his jammies with the widdle wings on the wrists). Lately, the vapid thumping behind 'the guy with the forehead fro who did the slackline in the superbowl', as one guy on the Rigorous Intuition forum put it. If you know of any way to break this tedious curse, please help a sufferer out and comment!

As always, questions or requests for clarification are very welcome! Next up, our final color scheme: the triad.


  1. OMG... you're a RigInt reader too!!! :D

  2. OMG backatcha!!!!! :) seriously, elle, this is one of the most beautiful moments on my blog ever! heehee, wait until my husband finds out ;) 'lunarose'

  3. I burn earworms out of my head with Skrillex, but I am not sure that works for everyone.

  4. Hehehe! I am not signed up, just lurking. :) (I think I tried to sign up once but got no response/no confirmation e-mail; but then I'm usually a silent lurker anyway, so it hardly matters if I lurk while logged in or not... Maybe even better if not! :D )

  5. Oh this is funny: I don't have much interest in the topics I scanned through on that board but I visited the blog and - for a person who doesn't watch tv, doesn't go to the movies, doesn't read fiction and has no interest whatever in the supernatural - my relaxation is conspiracy theory and bloodline occult conspiracies. :D Got lost reading this stuff for the entire morning! And still not through, thankfully. :D

    The sails on Columbus' ships! [grin]

  6. I didn't dare click on the earworm links. I've been amazed at the impact these color-mixing posts have had on me. Lately, I've been thinking hard about color saturation...and figuring out why some things that seemed a good idea, weren't after I snapped a photo.

  7. oh Cynthia, too much!

    elle, actually i asked Mr. Wells to delete my account a few years back as the board was getting so paranoid about pedophiles, agents, etc. Anytime a new person posted the place went into Salem, MA mode. Then of course they're continually bellyaching about 'why no new members?'

    It's a lot of fun to read-only, almost like a soap opera with all the various characters. I was so happy when i saw 8bitagent's 'Recs for NY?' thread - YE!!! 8bit's actually getting out of the house!!! And the other day my dad and i were out at the Berkeley marina with pooch and saw the Hangar 1 Vodka blimp, which made me think of 'oh the hugh manatee!' and cracked me up for days!

    btw, if you ever get over to the SF part of the world, let me know! i'd love to go do some photogs with you out in the woods!!!!

    Vildy, between you and the little mouse my mind is blown. Wide. Open. " relaxation is conspiracy theory and bloodline occult conspiracies." Boy Howdy Mr. Wells is just the best blogger in that vein, ever! Sure hope he kicks that writer's block some decade or other, it's been going for years and i'm sure must be excruciating for him. I've been creatively blocked myself at times, it's sheer hell.

    You, however, can thrill to the archives!! You might enjoy Christopher Knowles' blog The Secret Sun, lots of paranormal and pop culture but very entwined with your preferred topics. Also, the rig int board has some single topic areas that might contain more info along your interests. Enjoy!!!

    Hi Terri! "I didn't dare click on the earworm links" heehee, that's a smart woman for ya :) that's really exciting that you're getting into this color info!! If you're into it to begin with, getting a few of the basic theoretical constructs in your head can really spark all type of thought. Yay!!

    Have fun, steph

  8. I've been exploring juxtaposing light and dark colors - outside of the typical black and white. So I've been looking at dark with light complement and vice versa. Well, it's the same thing, but you know what I mean, where you start. I would love to find some color wheels for off shades, like olive. In the meantime, I really liked this explanation of how to use olive. And olive is so interesting because there's a blued olive, a brown olive (breen) and a golden yellow olive.

  9. Hi Vildy!

    "...dark with light complement and vice versa." ah, that's a beautiful one. I love how it's very strong yet subtle at the same time. Pick the right colors for the person and it's tremendously flattering as well, as it brings out a whole range of color and feature. How fun!!!

    hmm, if i can think of a way to do an olive color wheel i will. Making different color wheels is a great exercise, it really sharpens your eye. Olive is a wonderful 'virtual neutral', interestingly enough i've noticed some form of olive has been available in RTW the last 30 years at least. And ASW is fabulous, i'll have to turn mr. e on to it today!!!

    Happy Sunday! steph