Understanding Color

Getting Started...

Whether you’re sprucing up the dining room for the holidays or preparing the nursery for that new addition, most decorating projects start with a particular location or a special occasion in mind. Having identified the space, the next step is to identify a source of inspiration upon which to build your palette. What inspires you could be as close as the cushion on your couch or as far away as your last vacation destination. Inspiration also comes from fashion, nature and art. Assemble items that appeal to you, whether they are fabric swatches, paint chips or photos cut from magazines. They are your starting point.

Take a good look at these items and notice just what colors attract and hold your attention. Chances are those are the same colors that you find in the personal palette of your wardrobe. Are you drawn to the warm hues of reds and yellows? Or do you find blues and greens feel better to you?  Don’t forget, it’s your space; you have to feel comfortable in it.



Color Basics

Hue- Is another name for color, it can also refer to a color family.

Shade - Is a color or hue that is mixed with black or gray.

Tint - Is a color or hue that is mixed with white.

Value - Is the relative lightness or darkness of a color. 

The temperature of a color is relative to itself and to the colors that surround it. Reds, oranges and yellows are usually considered warm colors while blues, greens and violets are cool colors. When warm and cool colors share a space, their respective temperatures are intensified. Intensity is associated with brightness or dullness. Intense colors are pure colors with little or no gray. These are referred to as high intensity colors. Low intensity colors have more gray in them and as a result tend to be more subdued. Tangerine and lemon are two good examples of high intensity colors. These colors will enliven any space. Terracotta and wheat are low intensity colors that have a soothing effect. Undertones are found in all colors except primary colors. Primary colors red, yellow and blue are single colors, while all other colors are a mix of colors. An undertone in a hue hints at a second subtle color or the color beneath the color. Olive is a good example of a green with yellow undertones. Pairing olive with yellow will emphasize the olive to a greater degree than if you decide to down play the yellow undertone by using its complement, which is red.

Color & Light

Light is probably the single most independent factor that influences color in a room. Paint, fabrics, wallpaper are all affected by light. That’s why it is so important to “test” a color in a room before committing to that color.

There are three types of lighting conditions in a room: direct and indirect sunlight, and artificial lighting. Direct and indirect sunlight are diffused through a room either through a window, door or skylight. Direct sunlight is consistent throughout the day and is thought to be the ideal light source. Indirect sunlight varies throughout the day and therefore affects the color in a room. Artificial light can be divided into warm and cool light. Florescent lights have a cool bluish cast that tends to flatten colors.

It is a bit harsher and sometimes causes hard surfaces to appear harder. Incandescent or halogen light throws a yellow cast. It tends to highlight a room’s colorations with a warmer more comfortable ambiance.

Warm & Cool Palettes

The color wheel can be divided into half, with warm colors on one side and cool colors on the other. Warm colors like red, yellow and orange tend to heat up a room. These colors are considered energetic and stimulate activity. These colors are a good choice for kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, and play rooms. Warm colors tend to advance and therefore close in a room. Use warm colors to cozy up a large room.

Warm colors advance and cool colors recede. These photos showing the same room taken at the same angle demonstrate that perfectly. The photo featuring the warm colors appears much closer to you while the photo with the green hues looks like it was taken from a distance.

Cool colors like blue, green and violet are quiet and tranquil colors. They are best used in rooms that call for relaxation and calm. Use cool colors in bedrooms, bathrooms, dens and nurseries. Use cool colors in sunny rooms where they act as a counter balance to direct sun light. Cool colors are recessive; they give the illusion of pushing back walls thereby making a small room look larger.



Color Terminology

MONOCROMATIC schemes utilize colors from the same family on the wheel. This will include all the light tints, dark shades as well as the clean and muted versions of that color family.

COMPLEMENTARY color schemes use colors opposite each other on the color wheel. Used together, this combination of warm and cool colors creates excitement and energizes any décor. Opposite colors are perfect as accent colors in a neutral décor.

TRIADIC schemes use three colors that are equally spaced from each other on the color wheel. Similar color values can be used, such as primary colors for children’s rooms. Colors can also be arranged in varying degrees with one color dominant, another color as secondary and the third color as an accent.

ANALOGOUS schemes use colors of the same temperature near each other on the wheel. These schemes evoke a specific mood, such as calm and tranquil or warm and inviting.

SPLIT COMPLEMENTARY color schemes combine the two colors on either side of a color’s complement. This combination of colors adds variety to a room in a pleasant but active way.

DOUBLE COMPLEMENTARY color schemes are created by using colors that are next to each other and then finding their opposites on the color wheel.

Color Sample Ordering

Architects/Interior Designers, please email julie@farrellcalhoun.com for additional or replacement samples for the Color Is, Historic Colors of America, and Millennium color systems.