Demystifying colour: Colour theory and its use

Have you considered adding colour to your interior but not known where to start? Do you like pops of colour but opt for neutrals to avoid a messy and hectic space? You are not alone. Choosing a colour palette is an important yet intimidating task for many when it comes to decorating their homes. Designers put much thought into creating a desired style and mood with colour. Most of us aren’t interior designers by trade though, and that’s okay. Today we will introduce you to some colour theory basics and recommendations for effective colour use in your home.

1) Choose the colours for your interior

Start by working from a colour wheel. The colour wheel is a roadmap for understanding colour combinations and how they’re interpreted by the human brain. It’s a tool widely used by artists and designers. We propose that you start by examining the wheel’s various colour combinations and its range of hues.  

  • The primary colours are red, blue and yellow. These are considered pure colours — they cannot be created. 
  • The secondary colours are orange, green and purple. These colours are formed by combining equal parts of 2 primary colours (e.g. yellow and blue make green). 
  • The tertiary colours are formed by combining varying parts of secondary and primary colours. As a result, tertiary colours are less vivid. White and black are often added to soften or darken these hues. 

Variations on these base colours are created by using shades, tints and tones. A tint is obtained by adding white to render a colour lighter, while shading involves adding black to make it darker. Tone refers to mixing a colour with a combination of white and black. The colour wheel helps you mix colours to get palettes with varying degrees of contrast. 

2) Colour schemes: the classics

There are six classic colour combinations: monochromatic, analogous, complimentary, triadic and tetradic. Each of these schemes can achieve a unique style and mood when skillfully employed.

Monochromatic: A single colour in a variety of saturations and lightness. 

How it works: It streamlines the design and creates a sense of harmony. Specialists suggest using 3 shades in total, starting with a base shade that will define your design. Then, round out your colour scheme by choosing one colour that’s lighter than your base shade and one colour that’s darker. Use pattern and texture to add in some visual interest to a monochromatic space. 

 Monochromatic scheme 

  Design by Bruce Bierman| Photography by Eric Piasecki

Analogous: Colours that are directly adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. 

How it works: Whether it’s green, yellow-green and yellow, or violet, red-violet and red, grouping these related tones together will create an interesting, harmonious and somewhat monochromatic look for any room of the house. Note that you can pull in shades of these colours and even pastels. Pinks, lavenders and even mints will work as long as you keep your selection to adjacent colours.  

 Analogous scheme 

  Marta Escoda home| Photography by Lula Poggi

Complementary: A chosen colour is paired with a colour directly opposite on the colour wheel. 

How it works: Using one of three complementary colour pairings (red and green, purple and yellow, blue and orange) is a great way to create a bold and dynamic space. Striking the right balance between the colours takes a little finesse, but the results are worth it. Since this colour combo is high contrast, it is recommended for use in small doses, when you want to draw attention to a particular design element. Use it to bring some vibrancy to your home office, powder room or any other space that you believe requires it. If you choose a complementary colour scheme, you really need to combine the dynamic colours with neutrals. They will provide a place for your eyes to rest and keep them from becoming overwhelmed.  

 Complementary scheme 

Interior Design by Kimille Taylor| Photography by Joshua McHugh

Split complementary: A variation on the complementary scheme that pairs the chosen colour with the two adjacent colours of its complement. 

How it works: This is a great one to try if the complementary colour scheme resonates with you but you’re afraid it may be a little too bold. First choose a dominant base colour, preferably in a muted tone. Then, go bold with the other two shades in the room’s accent pieces. 

 Split complementary scheme 

  Emily Han-Hee Kim home| Photography by Mackenzie Schieck

Triadic: Colours equally spaced around the colour wheel. 

How it works: This type of palette is bold. The colours highly contrast, and are often employed in pure hues. That makes this scheme a favoured choice for children’s bedrooms or playrooms. In other rooms, a choice of subdued shades will tone down the drama to an agreeable level. For a balanced look, follow the 60-30-10 rule, where one colour is predominant, one colour takes a secondary role, and the third colour is used sparingly as an accent. Also, you can use neutrals, white for instance, to soothe the contrast.  

 Triadic scheme 

 Villa d'Este - Lake Como | Photography by Federico Torra

Tetradic: Combines two complementary colour pairs from the wheel. 

How it works: In this scheme, colour temperature plays a very important role. When you employ two warm colours and two cool colours, in equal amounts, you’ll bring balance to the space. Since tetradic colour schemes are bold, consider adding a few patterns that are within your colour scheme. If you use only solid colours, your space might look overly saturated. The more colours you have in your palette, the more difficult it is to balance.  

 Tetradic scheme 

Apartment Therapy 

Aside from colour scheme, designers also consider colour temperature. In general, warm colours, which contain more red and yellow, seem more vibrant and cozier to us, while cool colours, which contain more blue and violet, communicate calm and relaxed vibes. 

3. Effects of Colour on interior space

As you know by now, colour is one of the key tools designers use to create a desired ambience and aesthetic. Colour can add perceived weight to surfaces, change the proportions of a room, and be a calming or exciting factor. Designers take various approaches in using colour such as: (a) volumetric approaches to colour, (b) planar approaches to colour, (c) emphasizing design elements, (d) changing the proportions of a room (Grimley, Love, 2007).

a) Volumetric approaches to colour. Painting all aspects of a room the same colour has the effect of volumizing the space. This method can be particularly effective in making small spaces appear larger or more intimate depending on the colour choice. This approach works best in situations where it can be referenced in sequence, such as enfilade, or series of rooms connected through doors.

b) Planar approaches to colour. Colour can be used to emphasize the planes in a given sequence of rooms, as in a double height room or loft. Painting a length of wall can lead the eye through the spaces of a design and highlight the elements at the end of a wall, such as a light fixture, art or furniture. Planar colour can also make surfaces appear closer or further away. 

c) Emphasizing design elements. Colour can be employed to make certain elements of a design stand out. For instance, trim, moldings and furniture take on more significance when they are coloured in contrast with their surroundings. 

 d) Changing the proportions of a room. Colour can change how the proportions of a room are perceived. Adding colour to a portion of the wall or changing paint sheen represent a few strategies used to play with spacial perception. Adding colour to the lower half of a room can provide a demarcation line for elements such as art and furniture. 

Volumetric approach to colour

Wine Bar 'Le Plonc'

Interior Design by Greg Natale

Planar approach to colour

Anthony Todd Interior Design 

Photography by Max Kim-Bee

 Emphasizing design elements

   Gori & Yoon Architecture

Changing the proportions of a room

Interior Design by Stewart-Schafer

Whichever scheme and approach you choose, pay attention to the amount of each colour you use. Aim for 1 or 2 primary colours and a handful of secondary or accent colours. Also, when you design your own space, remember that materials have qualities of absorption, reflectance and luminance that the abstract system of colour does not take into account. Some materials will make a colour appear bolder; others will soothe it down. Consider the light your room is getting. Without light, colour wouldn’t be much to look at. And as much as the right light can make a colour sing, it can also make gray look blue or white look dingy. 

We hope this post on colour basics sheds some light on how to bring more colour to your space. If you need some inspiration, experiment with tried and true colour schemes from art pieces and other interior design projects. Above all, stay true to yourself and have fun! 

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