Color Pairing - Clash Course

Here's How To Avoid A Color Clash

Clash CourseThe artist Edvard Munch once said, "Some colors reconcile themselves to one another; others just clash." That's the challenge every designer faces: finding colors that work well in combination. It's also an issue that ad specialty distributors struggle with, as they try to get logos and clothing options to match each other. But how do you determine what works?

There's a common rule of thumb: Colors that appear together in nature coexist harmoniously in design. Think of the brown, blue and green along a lakeside path, or the beige and turquoise of the sand and sea. Even surprising combinations can inspire, like a red poppy in a field of green – two colors that might be considered unlikely mates.

As color complements (sitting across from one another on the color wheel), they create a so-called "clash," generating the most visual tension. Ignore the negative wording; pairing complements can be very successful. Turquoise, for example, looks fashion-forward when paired with a coral for a punchy palette. Gold next to navy lends a regal power. The key is in selecting the right saturation of color and using the right amounts. A touch of red in a field of green pleasingly pops, whereas the two colors used in equal doses may well clash.

There's more to consider. The website Fuel Your Creativity ( defines clashing color schemes as "one color paired with a second color to the left or right of its color wheel complement."

Similarly, split complementary color schemes (which take the two colors on either side of a color's complement) are difficult to pull off. The best result that creates harmony is to allow one of the three colors to take center stage and use the other two hues sparingly.

You might think that picking colors right next to each other on the color wheel is always a safe bet. It usually is, but sometimes "too close but not close enough" doesn't work. Mixing blues that feature greenish or violet hues might appear off. It's better to take a single blue-violet or blue-green and then select from a range of tints and tones to create interest and contrast (think of looking at a variety of paint swatches that all stem from a single specific color). By doing so, you'll create a monochromatic color scheme that works well.

Stuck for a color scheme suggestion for a client? Try the free ColorSchemer Touch app for the iPhone. You can browse over one million pre-made color schemes or search for a colorway by keyword such as "spring" or "ocean." You can even take photos of objects or landscapes with colors that inspire you; the app pulls hues from that image to create a scheme.