When NOT to Use Complementary Colors

A friend recently asked me if she should paint her kitchen walls green to compliment her red cherry wood kitchen cabinets. I asked her if she liked the color of her cabinets and she said no, she was tired of the bossy red wood but heard green “complimented” red so she thought green might be a good choice.

Okay folks, let’s clear up the misunderstanding about the word Complimentary when it comes to colors. Colors opposite one another on the color wheel are called  Complementary with an “e”. This is different from the word Complimentary with an “i” which is used as in, “oh that pearl necklace looks great on you”.

When complementary colors on the color wheel are placed next to each other, they make one another appear more intense and brighter.

complementry colors


Since my friend didn’t want her cherry cabinets to appear even redder, she didn’t want to use the complement of red which is green.  See how bright these cherry cabinets look against the green walls in the photo below.


The rule to remember, is if you want a color to pop or appear brighter then use it’s complement (opposite color on the color wheel). However, if you want to tone down a color choose a color that is either very close to it on the color wheel or choose a neutral. In this case my friend didn’t want to put red or orange on the walls so she choose a neutral.

Cherry Cabinets

 Look how much more toned down these cherry cabinets look against the neutral light gray walls.

Speaking of complementary colors, I couldn’t help but share this photo of a leaf I came across last Fall while hiking.  Sometimes even nature gets confused.

complementary colors

complementary colors

How about you?  Did you confuse the word complementary with complimentary when referring to color?

If you would like help choosing the right color for your home give me a call.






45 Responses to When NOT to Use Complementary Colors
  1. kristie@thedecorologist Reply

    Brilliant! Great post, Linda – you are right on, my dear 🙂

  2. Sian Reply

    While I understand and appreciate your article;
    a) that’s a different kitchen in the second photo
    b) & those cupboards are not even close to cherry red!
    Would be really good to see what you are referring to actually illustrated!!

    • Adele Reply

      The cabinets are “red cherry” not “cherry red,” Sian. I think it would be asking a bit much to paint the walls green and then neutral just so Linda could illustrate her blog. I thought the photos worked perfectly as

      • Linda Holt Reply

        Thank you Adele for taking the time to comment on my blog. I greatly appreciate the support.

      • Sian Reply

        The point I was actually making was that the cupboards in the first photo Linda posted were not even the slightest bit red whatever colour name you want to give them, in fact they were almost orange! The new photo is a much better illustration thank you

    • Teresa Tullio Reply

      This actually is a fabulous example of how dramatic a volor change can be. Even though the kitchens are different, the cabinets are very close in color.

  3. Mary Reply

    Actually, the correct word is complement, whether you are talking about pearls that complement a sweater (as in the definition, making a set) OR complementary colors as a technical art term. Your definitions are right, but the word is still complementary with an E. Compliment with an I is to make a flattering comment or remark, not two paint colors that flatter each other. They complement each other, or go together well as a set. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/compliment-versus-complement.aspx

  4. Jil Reply

    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read on color. Those red cherry cabinets look very bright against the green wall – much better against the gray.
    I never realized the difference in spelling. You are brilliant!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Wow! Jil, you made my day. Thank you for the kind words.

    • Yee Kenkel Reply

      what is the name of the color gray in the 2nd picture? Thanks.

      • Linda Holt Reply

        Revere Pewter

  5. Kelly Reply

    🙂 I liked the post Linda!

  6. Sheila Zeller Reply

    Linda, I think you have brought great clarity here!

  7. Sarah @ Redesigning Sarah Reply

    Great post Linda – really like how you used the two images to illustrate your point – and very true!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Thank you so much Sarah for taking the time to comment.

  8. John Q. Shearer Reply

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks I enjoyed reading this post. Mary is correct regarding the grammar, but your point that complementary colors intensify is an important principal to understand and teach.

    The combination of red and green is not often prescribed by a colorist but i find owners who arrive at the combination by inspiration or historical research. I have painted at least 5 significant homes in the last 10 tens in red and green.

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment John. I always love hearing from other color lovers. i will check out your site.

  9. Beth Reply

    I have just purchased my first home and in it are red cherry cabinets with dark grey granite counter tops.
    I have been torn on colors for my kitchen because I want the color to tie into my living room without a huge contrast. I was leaning toward a green color in the kitchen but I don’t want the cabinets to ‘pop’ so much.
    Thank you very much for the pictures and the knowledge.

  10. Ali Reply


    yes I do think you make very good illustration.
    and I havea question for you…. The cabinets in our house are oak and they’re kinda old school for me theyre stained a (not sure of name) honey color but look almost yellow/orangey so when i went to pick out paint samples i wanted a nice light brown like a creamy chocolate or something but after talking to sales girl i got samples in a more tan/beige with yellow undertone…help which would work better?? suggestions!?!

  11. Cathy Carlson Reply

    Hello Linda,
    Great article. I found this piece of advice out last summer when we painted our back deck. The roof on our deck was stained a very pretty light golden oak stain. It actually darkened over time. Well, we decided to paint the deck floor a red. Wow, it looked like a carnival when we were done. The red really brought out the gold and it was just too much. We repainted the floor a brown and it certainly toned everything done.
    I never realized why that happened until I read your article.
    Great article.

  12. Kerri Reply

    Any other colors besides green to go with cherry cabinets? Thanks,

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Warm gray or soft white are also good choices

  13. Pam Chapman Reply

    Need advice .. need to paint small room to become 4 yr. old bedroom .. he wants walls to be red and blue .. I thought of 1 red and 3 blue but hues to be dark as in Superman colors … feel that’s too much .. should I do one wall red and the rest cream or neutral and decorate with blue and red so as to incorporate the blue color he wants?

    • Linda Holt Reply

      I do not recommend painting ANY of the walls Red or Blue in a small bed room. Keep the walls neutral and use the Red and Blue in the bed spread, window treatments and posters of his favorite super hero on the wall. Plus, what he loves now at age 4 will not be what he wants iAt age 6 or 7. If you keep the walls neutral you can change out colors as tastes change.

  14. Kate C Reply

    I stumbled here while searching for a rug color that would work on cherry floors. I have a not so top quality cherry laminate (came with the house) in most of our home that we will be living with for some time. My vaulted ceiling, wide open to the whole house living room/entry way/hallway walls used to be a baby mint green, if you can imagine that. Trust me, it was worse that your green/cherry wood example.

    Anyway, we’ve repainted the room in a sandy neutral with a blue accent wall and suddenly the floors just aren’t as bad anymore. I’m currently adding an off-white board and batten look to an entry wall and am looking for an entry way runner. I’d like a pop of color but don’t have a clue where to start. I’m afraid of undoing the balance I finally struck with the floor. Any tips?

  15. Amy Reply

    I just painted my kitchen. It had reddish cherry cabs and black countertops. My main living are are nuetral so I thought I should be more bold in the kitchen. I choose a golden yellow ( Bm cork). It’s a nice color but now my kitchen looks like ketchup and mustard. The wAlls and cabinets together Ard both too intense. Now I’m considering a reaping of a lighter more tan color Sw safari. Or I could do grey but with the rest of my house so nuetral I worry about it being too blah. Any advice? Thanks!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      I personally would paint the walls a neutral. Remember the Cherry Red cabinets already act as the wall color so adding a second color to the walls can be too much..like you discovered already with the Cork. Also, don’t forget that there are other ways to add color to your home without painting color on the walls. Think of adding colorful accessories to the kitchen or a pop of color with fabric..maybe in a Roman Shade on your kitchen window. A flat weave rug could add a pop of color in front of the sink or a colorful piece of art on the walls. Hope this helps!

  16. Denise Reply

    Love the article…my living room and dining room are BM Harbour Town #493 my living space is not an open concept but I can still see the kitchen from my living room, dining room and vice versa. I have natural cherry cabinets, a multi color granite counter and stainless appliances. Would a neutral grey wall color be too drab? HELP

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Denise, I’m not sure what color you are considering for “neutral grey”. It is important to know that almost all greys have undertones of either Blue, Green, or Purple. My advise if you want Grey is to choose a warm Grey like Revere Pewter or if you like a darker grey look at Clarksville Gray. Hope that helps!

  17. Holly Voelker Reply

    I am so thrilled with this entry you made! I have been struggling with a color for my cherry kitchen cabs for 5 years! I have painted them 2 times already and still not happy. They are currently a light gray green—hate it. I want to bring down especially the warm tones-orange and my house is traditional. The cabs they purchased were very expensive and so will not be painted. Anyhow, what color is the gray paint in the photo shown? I would like a neutral but need specific suggestions. Is a purple undertone on a greige ok???? Would that be best? I am thinking so since a blue or green undertone in a greige will just enchance the orange and red tones in the cherry? Am I right about that? I find this tough and could use exact paint color suggestions. Room is facing east.

    Thank you so much for addressing toning down the orange and red in the cherry by giving us a color lesson. It finally makes sense!

  18. Christy Sittler Reply

    I have cherry cabinets, and mustard gold tile under the cabinets. Currently the walls are also a mustard color, but I feel it brings the room down. What neutral color would work best.

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Hi Christy, I really couldn’t suggest a neutral without seeing what else is going on the room such as the floor, the counter tops, and window treatments.

  19. France Reply

    I have cabinets that are stained a medium brown. The problem is the undertone. It’s green. The walls right now are brown and are making the cabinets look greenish and worned down. The question is; if I painted the walls green would it tone down the green undertone in the stain and bring out the red tone in the cabinets?

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Hi France, Without seeing the cabinets it is a little difficult to comment but brown has a lot of red undertones so yes, the walls could be making the cabinets look more green than they are. Green walls would make the cabinet’s green undertone less noticeable.

  20. Amanda Reply

    Any suggestions for Pickled Oak cabinets? My goal is to tone down the pinkish tint they have. Flooring is oak Parque, counters greyish blue, stainless appliances.

  21. Donna Reply

    Great advice!!

  22. NewHomeOwner Reply

    Thank you so much Linda! We just bought a new house that has dark wood cabinets (my husband and I prefer light wood). I was wondering why the green kitchen walls (with a red accent wall) stood out so much and disagreed with me. Your article brought great clarity! I was thinking of going with a light gray for our kitchen due to a gray/white swirled counter top. I think your post sealed the deal! Thank you!

  23. Pam from Louisville Reply

    Wow, what a difference color makes to the two rooms with cherry cabinets. I’m having the red cabinet problem myself and this advice is just what I needed. Thanks so much for this post.

  24. Mike in Chicago Reply

    THANK YOU. I have SCOURED dozens of sites, many of which are considered the “big guns” or bigger corporate “go-tos” for all one’s interior needs – but YOU are the only who clearly and succinctly explains one of the most vital rules in picking color when considering pre-existing pieces/colors. Just needed it smartly explained to pass along to my painters and to solidify my choice. Hats off to you! Was So stoked to finally find this!

  25. Laura Conlon Reply

    I live in Illinois and just wondered if you could tell me the color grey paint used in the kitchen with the red cherry cabinets. I have a simular kitchen and that color is perfect!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      So sorry but I don’t know the color.

  26. Sunny Reply

    I was trying to determine whether a blue paint would help tone down an orange undertone in my cabinets. Thank you for the easy advice! It looks like I’ll be going with a neutral.

  27. ImaDisneyGurl Reply

    Hello! I have serious decorating dilemmas I can’t solve! I recently bought a home which we’re demo/renovating to the studs on the NJ Shore.To help stretch my budget Im keeping & relocating the 10yr-old, good-quality, cherry-colored, wooden kitchen cabinets I already own- BUT I’m so tired of the “medium-cherry-color”(previously hung on golden-rod-colored walls) I had honestly hoped to have a more grey-ish-toned or neutral- idk if it’s called pecan(?)light-walnut-type(?) wooden cabinets?(& these were really expensive). And my even-bigger delimma is: it’s a WIDE OPEN floor plan (think of a backwards “L” whereby the kitchen is on the shorter length) it opens up into the “great room” which has roof-high-cathedral ceilings w/skylights, & faces a wall of glass doors& windows across the length of the back wall which goes into both Lving & dining rms.& in addition, the 2nd story ALSO is very visible from 1st floor, ie: it has an “open hall way” over-looking the 1st floor,(the great rm.& dining rm.) Im very concerned about how to pull this look that I have in mind knowing the red-toned kit.cabinets will likely affect the entire look of the house? I HOPED to create a wood-wall feature in L.rm. using thin type of boards sized 2×6 or 2×8 in length across one entire wall stained in 2-3 complementary grey-NEUTRAL COLORS (like a more grey/or “lt.brown-ish” color?) &I fear those colors will clash with the red-toned kitchen? ( I intended to make all remaining wood used in the decor similar in color to the aforementioned wall). SOooo, do you think it’s impossible to tone down the red-hues enough (one way or another) so as not to not clash with grey/neutral toned woods? Is it possible to ALTER the color of the kit.cabinets by throwing either a stain, wax or wash, upon the kitchen? (Hubby is a G.C.) Or do you THINK it’s possible to find a wall-paint-color effective enough to make the cabinets appear to be dramatically changed in tone by the wall paint color alone? Im just so stumped on how to get the new grey-neutral-toned looks I’m hoping to achieve in this new home? I apologize for the lengthy question(s)-but thank you in advance for any suggestions you may offer!! -ImaDisneyGurl ps: (I hope this does NOT duplicate post, but it looks like I’m encountering a bit of trouble in posting this comment?..)

    • Linda Holt Reply

      I’m sorry but without seeing your situation I can not really comment. I would suggest calling in a local color consultant who can take a look at your specific situation and advise the best way to proceed. Unfortunately though, those red undertones are not going to magically disappear no matter what color paint you choose. Best of luck.

  28. Teresa Tullio Reply

    I also just noticed that the green in your first example is a yellow undertoned green and the cabinets are a cool red. This combination makes the green appear brighter. Color can be tricky!

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