Discovering Complementary Colors

Editor’s note: I used to believe there were two types of people: those who naturally understood how to work with color and those who were doomed. But you can develop color confidence with practice and study. Once a color coward, I’m now drawn to complementary color schemes. Ann Weaver addressed them in a companion article to her Complementary Cowl. Here’s an excerpt.

As an art major in college, I was particularly drawn to art from the early twentieth century. Johannes Itten, an artist and instructor who taught color theory to students at the Bauhaus School, describes seven different types of contrast. One of the easiest types of contrast to understand and apply to your knitting is complementary colors.

Complementary Colors

An interpretation of one of Johannes Itten’s color wheels

Cut Across the Color Wheel

Complementary colors are colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel. They can be described as the opposite of each other because, when mixed together in correct proportion, they create a neutral gray. When used together, complementary colors create a strong, bold effect, which is why they are ubiquitous in athletic uniforms and graffiti art. There’s a scientific explanation for this:

When you look at a color—for example, red—and then look at a white surface, an afterimage of the complementary color (in this case, green) will appear. The eye wants to see the color’s complement, so pairing complementary colors is visually satisfying.

Color Studies

The strongest pairs of colors use the three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. The complementary color pairs are therefore red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple.

Each end of each swatch is a hue, and the two colors between the hues are tints, tones, or shades of the hues. A tint is a color formed by adding white to a hue. A tone is a color formed by adding gray to a hue. A shade is a color formed by adding black to a hue. The farther one gets from the true hues of a color (at the outermost edge of the color wheel), the less contrast exists between that color and any other color. These swatch color studies take two high-contrast colors—as close to the true hues as a yarn palette permits—and bridge the gap between them with lower contrast versions of the same hues.

Complementary Knitting

To create a color progression, choose two complementary colors. If you want to tone down your color scheme, pick a tint of one or both of the colors: swap a pale lemon yellow for a yellow hue or exchange a red hue for a pink.

Next, use your color wheel to find one other version of each of your complementary colors: a tint, tone, or shade. Branch out into nearby colors if you like, perhaps using red-orange in a red to green project or blue-violet in a blue to orange project.

The three swatches above play with creative ways of interpreting complements.

The three swatches above play with creative ways of interpreting complements.

Color Progression

  1. The first swatch moves from red hue (red) to red shade (bison), green tint (khaki), and green hue (emerald). Note the difference between the brown in the cowl and the one in this swatch.
  2. The middle swatch moves from orange tint (carrot) to orange shade (butterscotch). blue shade (navy), and blue hue (ultramarine).
  3. The third swatch explores a different progression from red to green. It deviates a bit from crossing the color wheel by moving from red hue (red) to yellow/orange tint (camel), yellow/green tint (sage), and green shade (balsam).

—Ann Weaver

Want to explore complementary colors and other palettes in spinning fiber? Learn with Esther Rodgers in her Color Blending for Spinners course.

Featured Image: Between perfect complementary colors lies a neutral gray.

Play with color!

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