Most people feel pretty comfortable when pairing neutral colors, since navy, white, tan, and black can all go together. And adding one color to an outfit that consists of neutrals is pretty easy, too. Color-blocking, however, can seem a little harder, a little riskier, a little more complicated. At some point, we have all stood in front of the mirror, holding up different-colored pants to our new blouses, wondering if we shouldn’t just wear denim as usual.
I’ve learned that looking to nature is an easy way to see what unexpected color combinations can look unexpectedly good. Oceans, sunsets, hillsides, trees, birds, and flower gardens are just some of the natural beauties you can observe to find surprising color combinations without having to worry about color rules regarding what matches and what clashes. Here are three simple guidelines below to get started.
Pair Like with Like
When starting off, pair similar colors together. The primary colors, for example, are red, blue, and yellow (or red, blue and green when discussing light). These are the three colors that mix together to make up all the other colors on a color wheel, or in the rainbow. Primary colors also always go together, whether you mix together just two or all three.
Any landscape photo with clear sky and green trees demonstrates how well primary green pairs with primary blue. This particular ensemble combines all three primary colors to create a color-blocked look reminiscent of a Piet Mondrian painting.
When moving beyond simple primary colors, stick with mixing saturated, vivid colors with other saturated, vivid colors, because sometimes a vivid color can overwhelm a lighter tint. However, vivid colors paired with other vivid colors will always work.
Blogger and designer Folake Kuye Huntoon of Style Pantry tops a high-waisted green skirt with an orange blouse. Huntoon’s look could be inspired by both the colors and the proportions of a California poppy. The brightness of both the orange top and green skirt bring together seemingly contrasting colors.
Any vivid color can be paired with any other vivid color. Adding aqua with bright green, as Huntoon did here, calls to mind views of tropical islands spotting the blue Caribbean sea.
Blogger Alison Gary channels a two-tone rose in this vivid casual look.
Just as you can combine bright, saturated colors with other brights, you can also combine other types of colors together. Adding black, white, or gray to the rainbow creates different types of colors.
When a color is mixed with white, designers call it a “tint.” It’s also what most people would call a pastel color, or Easter colors. Examples of tints or pastels would be pastel pink, baby blue, lavender, and mint green. Once again, you can easily mix pastel colors with other pastel colors.
In coral plus salmon, Huntoon's pastel ensemble looks like a romantic spring bouquet.
Note that while the chambray is cool and the light yellow is warm, they are both pastel colors, and therefore work well together.
Colors mixed with gray or black are called “tones” or “shades,” but again many people would refer to them as darker colors, muted colors, or fall/winter colors. Examples of tones or shades include wine red, forest green, burnt orange, and mustard.
Pairing like with like works with shades and tones, as well. You can find more muted or deeper shades mixed together in nature, too, like this marigold, forest green and burnt orange combination.
With burnt orange plus wine red, or wine red plus dark purple, either of these elegant looks could camouflage you in a bed of autumnal leaves.
Warm Colors vs. Cool Colors
The color wheel divide colors into two categories. The warm colors are red, orange, and yellow, and the cool colors are blue, green, and purple. However, colors can also be made warmer or cooler by adding yellow or blue. Aqua, for instance, is a warm blue because it has a lot of yellow in it. Purple, also, can be made warmer or cooler depending on the amount of red or blue mixed in. Take this into account when you are mixing colors, and again, you can think of pairing like with like by keeping warm colors with warm colors and cool colors with cool colors.
In this fuchsia and violet ensemble, both pieces are cool colors with cool, blue undertones.
Though blue, these aqua pants have enough yellow mixed in to make them a warm color, too. Both the yellow and aqua are vivid colors as well, which is another reason why these two work well together.
Another way to combine colors is to go for a monochromatic look, which means that all of your pieces are the same color or the same version of one color. Most often, people wear monochromatic black or navy, but in nature we can find spectacular examples of monochromatic combinations in other colors, too. A monochromatic outfit can also be made up of any base color and can mix various types: bright or muted hues, shades and tints, both warm and cool colors.
This look pairs a pastel (mint green) with a shade (muted basil); the monochromatic greens recall a bed of succulents!
This ensemble pairs cool royal blue shoes, pants, and top with a warm aquamarine coat.
Entrepreneur Kendi Skeen creates a monochromatic look with a dark, cool maroon; a bright, vivid red; and a light, warm salmon. It looks elegant because of the shared base color red and because the simple, chic silhouette that lets the colors do the talking.
Three or More
When you start playing with colors inspired by nature, you will find that nearly any color combinations can look good together. Check out these gorgeous ensembles that mix three-or-more colors. Then, go have fun and dress like a bouquet!
Beth Jones stuns like a sunset in orange, yellow, and hot pink.
These women’s outfits could have been inspired by the colors of the various waterfalls on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, inside the Grand Canyon.