Complementary Colors: Harmony On The Color Wheel

The concept of complementary colors refers to three pairs of colors that artists agree look good together and complement each other. They are based on the color wheel that arranges colors in such a way that the colors opposite each other represent the three pairs. They are red and cyan, green and magenta, and blue and yellow (figure #1). This doesn’t mean that other colors don’t work together very well, but it suggests that if you use complementary color themes in your work, the images will be visually compelling.

Figure #1

For example, the shocking yellow building housing a police station in Istanbul, Turkey (#1) looks great against the saturated blue sky. The contrast between the two colors is bold and powerful. I captured the same complements in the photo of blue butterfly on a yellow flower (#2), and the predominant colors in the Moroccan door are intensely saturated blue and yellow (#3). Each of these images is successful on other levels in addition to the color (such as graphic design, lighting, and composition), but it’s the color that gives these pictures their punch.

All Photos © 2010, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved



Another pair of compliments that always makes a striking combination is green and magenta. This is easy to find when photographing flowers because so many species are pink, magenta, and fuchsia. The background green foliage offers the perfect environment. The foxglove flowers I found in Oregon (#4) are a perfect example. It doesn’t matter if the background is sharply defined or a soft blur, green and magenta will look good together in any circumstance. The wild rose (#5) from Glacier National Park in Montana offers the same contrast with green leaves. Notice in both these pictures that the lighting is soft and diffused. This is ideal for floral photography, and despite the mistaken impression by many photographers that bright direct sunlight is needed to bring out the rich colors in flowers, the truth is that it’s softly diffused lighting that makes the colors so beautiful.



A very different subject shows the same impact when green and magenta were juxtaposed with each other. Carnival in Venice (#6) offers an endless variety of outrageous colors in the costuming of the participants, and it’s always fun to find wild colors that clash and that have tremendous impact. Having said that, there’s nothing like complementary colors to draw attention to a subject.


If you are looking for an endless variety of colorful subjects to shoot, attend a car show. Street rods in particular are fantastic to photograph. Last July I went to the largest car show in North America and I was absolutely amazed at the dazzling display of color. It was held in Louisville, Kentucky, and there were 13,000 cars there and most of them were painted with outrageous colors. The backgrounds are not great, of course, because there were lots of people attending and there were distracting elements all over the place.

In the shot of three street rods (#7) with an architecture background (from Chicago), you can see an example of the third pair of complementary colors—red and cyan. I rarely see this combination in nature, but in fashion, cars, architecture, and even storefront windows you can sometimes find it. I made another composite photo with the 1959 Cadillac I shot in a museum (#8). The neon abstraction in the background was taken in O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, and I think the cyan color in the background was perfect to go with the saturated red paint job on the car. Notice how I combined two photographs where artificial lighting was used. Had I combined the indoor shot of the car with an exterior photo of something else, I wouldn’t have looked right. The lighting must match when you put images together.



I used the same color scheme when I asked a costumed model in Venice to stand in front of a house on Burano Island painted in cyan (#9).


daniell17's picture

I love the contrast, you did a good job with these photos. I also love how the cars look. Do you own one of these cars? If the answer is yes, then you should take care of it because it's a piece of art. Go often to auto service. The maintenance of the car is very important for a responsible car owner. Or if you don't have time for these kind of things it won't be hard to give away this old car to a "car donation event". Another owner will be pleased to have this car.