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There are several definitions for complementary colors, depending on the color model. By most definitions, complementary colors are those that cancel each other when they combine or mix together. When the colors are next to each other, they provide the greatest possible contrast. This contrast has led to many people referring to complementary colors as “opposite colors.” There are many possible complementary color pairings, though each color model has its own main complementary color pairs.

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1. Traditional Color Model

In the 18th century, the traditional color wheel came into existence, and it is still in use today. This color wheel features red, yellow, and blue as the primary colors. Its complementary pairs are red-green, yellow-purple, and blue-orange. Mixing any two primary colors will create the complementary color of the remaining primary color. As an example, mixing red and blue would create purple to compliment yellow. Additionally, because the model is prevalent in painting, it uses subtractive coloring. This refers to the fact that paint absorbs light, meaning that mixing all three primary colors together will result in a black or gray color. In recent years, more accurate coloring guides name magenta, cyan, and yellow as the primary colors.

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