Color Schemes for Interiors – Split Complementary

by Donna on August 29, 2010

Interiors and Complementary Color Schemes

In my post on “Color Schemes for Interiors – Direct Complementary“, I showed several examples of rooms that use two colors, one cool and one warm — colors that oppose each other on the color wheel. With complementary color schemes, all three primaries are actually present in some mix. For example if we look at red and its complement green, we see that green is a combination of the other two primaries, blue and yellow. Having a level of balance of colors from all three primary colors in a composition is thought, based on color theory concepts, to achieve a level of visual satisfaction.

As a note, it is not necessary to have a complementary balance of colors in order to achieve a harmonious color scheme. As author Linda Holtzschue (see my resources page) says, “Not every successful color scheme is complementary. Hues are also acknowledged to be be harmonious when used alone (as monochromatic schemes), as analogous combinations (which include two primaries, but not the third) and as complementary schemes (which contain all three primaries in some mix).”

If you feel challenged working with color in your interior, working within any of these named schemes, including the complementary schemes, can be a safest way to go.

In this post I’ll focus on, and show examples of, split complementary color schemes. In my next post I’ll go further into triad complementary schemes and show examples.

With direct complementary color schemes, two colors are involved. With split and triad schemes, three colors are involved. Let’s see how it works.

Split and Triad Schemes

Here’s my depiction of the color wheel showing split and triad complementary color schemes.
Color wheels showing split and triad complementary color schemes

With a split complementary scheme, we see that instead of using the color directly opposite the starting point color, the opposing complement is “split”, using each of the two colors on either side. As with any complementary color scheme, there is at least one warm color and one cool color.

Grab Your Color Wheels

To be able to dial all of the possible complementary color schemes, including the split complementary and the triad complementary schemes, you need an artist’s color wheel. They’re available at most art supply stores and online at suppliers like Dick Blick.

Working With Split Complementary Schemes

With either the split or triad schemes, unless a very colorful and lively interior space is the objective, you wouldn’t want to employ large amounts of all three colors at strong or full saturation. Consider these possibilities for using these schemes:

  • The walls of the room could be a subdued or muted version of one color, with furniture and accessories at stronger hues of the other two colors.
  • Main walls in an off-white employing a touch of one color, and an accent wall at a stronger version of that color; furniture and accessories, which occupy less space, in all three colors, also at stronger saturation.
  • Use all three colors of the scheme with some degree of dilution or neutralization.

Examples of Split Complementary Interior Room Schemes

To begin, my caveat as usual: any examples shown are based on how the colors appear on my screen; yours may differ. I’ll add, too, that I’ve considered a scheme as an acceptable example even though it may scew from a precisely defined split complementary. Call it allowing for artistic license and the fact that interior designers tend to work with color intuitively. In addition, there are, of course, infinite increments of color between colors on the color wheel, so colors used in wall paint color and fabrics are not always going to fall into precise slots on the color wheel. You’ll also see that a dominant color in a room is typically the starting point for defining the color scheme.

Interior designer Cynthia Rowley is the designer in this first example. (Photographer: Roger Davies. From Elle Decor.)
Interior designer Cynthia Rowley uses a split complementary color scheme in this living room.
The colors that comprise this split complementary scheme:

  • Pale yellow-green on the wall in the adjacent room is my starting point for looking at this a a split complementary scheme. (Even though the yellow-green is not really the dominant color, looking at it this way provides an opportunity for showing an example.
  • The violet on the wall of the room is a tint of violet. Curtains are in a deeper violet. Some red-violet, in the upholstery, is used as well.
  • The red of the scheme is in the pink of the sofa. Red flowers are an added element.

This dining room by Molly Luetkemeyer of M.Design Interiors uses very saturated colors:
Bold colors in a dining room by Molly Luetkemeyer.
The colors comprising this scheme:

  • Bright, saturated green in the wall mural is decidedly the starting point color for the room.
  • Bright red-orange in the throw (well, admittedly it’s not necessarily a permanent feature, but it helps to depict this split complementary scheme).
  • A touch of bright red-violet, in a hanging feature. It takes only a bit of color for the eye to see accept the presence of a complement.

Below, the colorfully appointed living room is by Jonathan Adler with fashion designer Nanette Lepore (from Elle Decor; photographer: William Waldron):
Living room by Jonathan Adler and Nanette Lepore
The color scheme:

  • The ceiling-height curtains in the high-ceiligned room, and the carpet, are a soft yellow.
  • Sofa and chairs are red-violet.
  • There’s a touch of blue-violet in a pillow or two.
  • The blue-green of the ottoman, while not part of the split complementary scheme, adds another level of vibrancy in the room.

Richard Gillette fills this library room with saturated color (again thanks to Elle Decor and photographer William Waldron):
A library room by Richard Gillette in a split complementary color scheme.
The colors we see used in the room:

  • Blue-green is the dominant color.
  • Complemented by red — in the pink of the back cushion of the platform bed…
  • …and, by the muted orange of the bolsters in an African mud-cloth.

Kathryn M. Ireland uses fabrics from her own line, employing pattern on pattern, in a bedroom shown in House Beautiful, (photo by Victoria Pearson).
Pattern on pattern fabrics in a bedroom by Kathryn M. Ireland
The split complementary colors used:

  • The green of the curtains was my starting point for seeing this as a split complementary scheme.
  • The pattern of the bed cover appears to be a tint of red-violet.
  • The red-orange of the pillow is the third color.

In the following room, a kitchen nook designed by Celerie Kemble, we see a more subdued combination of the colors that make up the color scheme in the room:
A kitchen nook by Celerie Kemble
The close to split complementary scheme:

  • The wall color appears to be a muted tone of violet – closer to red-violet, scewing it a bit from a precise split complementary scheme.
  • The rug and accent pillow are a subdued yellow-orange.
  • A couple of accent pillows are pale yellow-green.

Using a similar color scheme, interior designers Jamie Creel and Marco Scarani create a luxurious bedroom. (Image from Elle Decor. Photographer: Roger Davies.)
Bedroom by Jamie Creel and Marco Scarani
The split complementary color scheme:

  • Mauve, which is a very dulled and grayed violet, is used for the wall covering and the fabric draped from the bed canopy.
  • The upholstery of the two forward chairs is a muted version of yellow-green.
  • We see a touch of a muted yellow-orange in two accent pillows on the bed.

Michael S. Smith creates a rich, yet soothing, bedroom using a combination of soft tones of color, accented with richer tones of some of the same colors. The result is a masterful interplay of split and direct complementary colors. (Image, again, from Elle Decor; photographed by Simon Upton.)
Bedroom designed by Michael S. Smith
The split complementary scheme we see used:

  • The bed canopy is a soft and pale yellow-orange; the walls are a creamy off-white, tinted probably with a touch of yellow-orange. Bedding accent fabric is a brighter yellow-orange.
  • The flooring and two pillows on the bed are a soft, pale blue.
  • The Bedding accent fabric has a section of pale violet, completing the split complement. The blue-violet of the throw directly complements the yellow-orange.

In a charming room by Molly Luetkemeyer, the sofa area uses a split complementary scheme. Other colors in the room create and interesting interplay of color: (Photo from M.Design Interiors.)
Living room designed by Molly Leutkemeyer of M.Design Interiors
The sofa area color scheme:

  • The sofa is blue – seeming to lean almost to blue-violet.
  • Accent pillows, as well as the ottoman in the foreground, are softened red-orange.
  • Additional accent pillows on the sofa are yellow-orange.

I’ll end with a softly colorful bedroom by Jay Jeffers, a designer known for his often bold use of color. While many of his rooms may not fall into named color schemes, this room provides an close example of a split complementary color scheme.(Jeffers Design Group. Photographer: Matthew Millman.)
Bedroom designed by Jay Jeffers
The scheme:

  • Soft blue on the wall – which admittedly appears to scew towards blue-violet.
  • Bed covering and stool upholstery: yellow-orange.
  • The throw pillows are patterned with red-orange.

On My Next Post: Triad Complementary Color Schemes

See you then….
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