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Complementary Colors: Dynamic Duos
Complementary colors can create harmony in a piece of art. Read on to learn why these colors get paired off.
You’ve probably seen a color wheel, with its slices of different hues. If you squint, you may even be able to remember which ones are directly across from each other: red and green, yellow and purple, and blue and orange. These pairs are called complementary, and they pop up everywhere from Christmas decorations to the jerseys of popular sports teams such as the Santas.
Why these particular pairs? As it turns out, they’re bound together not just on the color wheel but within the anatomy of your eye. Demonstrating this is easy. Pick up, say, a bright green granny-smith apple and stare at it for 60 seconds. Then, turn your focus to a blank white wall or piece of paper, and you should see a ghostly reddish orb appear.
This happens because, like muscles, the cells that are responsible for receiving color information get tired if they have to do the same thing for too long. Normally when you look at a clean white surface, all your photoreceptors would be firing, since white light is a blend of every other color. But because your green receptors are temporarily worn out in the part of your visual field where the apple was, they can't function as well. The opponent-process theory of color vision posits that the pairs of red and green and blue and yellow are each controlled by a single system, so that one takes over if the other is exhausted.
That means that if you design a room with elements of complementary colors, you’re literally providing a reprieve for your eyes. In a room painted blue, there’s a sense in which your eyes actually want to see, say, an orange couch in the corner of the room—it gives the blue color receptors a break. However subtly, this eye-pleasing effect can make you feel more at ease in your space, even if it makes it more difficult to trick visitors into thinking they've gone colorblind.