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Color Theory Simplified + Free Printable Cheat Sheet!

In this post: Color theory matters to decorating…but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it’s made out to be!


What makes a good color combination? I mean, what really makes some colors really work well together and some not? The secret is in color theory

color theory cheat sheet pin

Now before you get all glassy-eyed on me, I promise I’ll only tell you exactly what you need to know to decorate your house. And nothing more.  

You may have heard of color theory before, perhaps in college or on a design show.

Maybe you never quite got the hang of all the terms and their uses. That’s okay! You don’t need to know all of them. 

I want to reassure you that practical color theory for decorating is actually pretty simple when it’s broken down. Which is what I’m doing for you in this post. You know, so you can actually understand it make use of color theory when decorating your home!

color theory simplified

Color Theory Words

Sometimes you need to explain things a little more than just saying “it’s red” or “it’s blue”.
Here are a handful of words that will help you when talking or reading about color theory.

Hue: another word for color
Tint: adding white to a color
Tone: adding gray to a color
Shade: adding black to a color
Cool Colors: greens, blues and violets
Warm Colors: reds, oranges and yellows

The Color Wheel

So let’s begin at the beginning…The most basic starting point of color theory is the color wheel.

Basic is good, right?

The color wheel is made up of 12 basic colors.

Most of us remember back to kindergarten and maybe painting at an easel. Well from that you may remember the 12 colors on the color wheel. Just in case you don’t, or kindergarten was a little longer ago for you they are:

  • 3 primary colors – red, blue and yellow.
  • 3 secondary colors – orange, green and violet (or purple)
  • 6 tertiary colors – yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green and yellow-green

color wheel and colors

Related: How to Use a Color Wheel for Decorating

Undertones

Undertones. Oh man, you guys. Undertones are IT. The big thing with color. Once you get the hang of them, you’re golden!

Wait, maybe you’re thinking “I love and decorate with neutrals. I don’t need color theory.” Well, that would be wrong, my friend.

Even if you love to decorate with neutrals, you are actually decorating with color because every shade of neutral other than pure white and pure black is a color and has a color undertone. This is especially true with paint. 

Like I said, the undertones in colors are the KEY to successfully choosing any and all colors of everything for your house!

There are three ways to determine the undertone of a color:

1. Use a color wheel

One simple trick to finding the undertone of something is to hold up your color wheel to it and see what color it most looks like.

2. Check the bottom of the paint swatch

THE EASIEST WAY TO FIND THE UNDERTONE OF A WHITE (OR NEUTRAL) PAINT COLOR IS TO LOOK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAINT CHIP/COLOR SWATCH. If the bottom color has green in it, the white will too. If it is a pink color the white will have pink in it too. In this way, you can choose a white or neutral with warm or cool undertones that work in your space!

how to choose the right white paint color

3. Grab a piece of printer paper

Another way to determine the undertone of a color – especially a white – is to hold it up to a plain piece of white printer paper. The white printer paper will provide contrast and you should be able to see the color as it truly is. 

white printer paper and paint chips

Related: How to Choose Paint Colors

Undertones matter especially in decorating with neutrals as you’ll want to decide whether you have:

  1. Cool neutrals (with green, blue or violet undertones) or
  2. Warm neutrals (with red, orange or yellow undertones)

Color Schemes

There are four main color schemes that you can use in your decorating:

  1. Monochromatic
  2. Complimentary
  3. Split-complementary
  4. Analogous

Each one requires choosing a main color and then choosing other colors to go with it. Here’s a little more detail about each color scheme. 

One color monochromatic color scheme

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(Example of a Monochromatic Color Scheme. Shades of warm white.)

One-Color Scheme – also called monochromatic this color scheme uses any one color and all of its shades, tints or tones. This scheme is very easy to implement and is a good place to start if you are unsure of yourself and your color choice, or if you like a subdued and subtle look.

Two color complementary color scheme

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(Example of a Complimentary Color Scheme. Pink and muted green are opposite each other on the color wheel.)

Two-Color Scheme – also called complimentary, this color scheme uses any two colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. This scheme is typically a high contrast look with colors such as red and green or orange and blue.

Multi-color or split complimentary color schemefamily room couch wall 2

(Example of a Split-Complementary Color Scheme. Red is opposite true green, with aqua blue and yellow-green on either side of it.)

Multi-Color Scheme – also called split-complimentary, with this color scheme you choose one main color and then the two colors on either side of it’s opposite. It offers rather a dramatic look.

Related or analogous color scheme

living room

(Related Color Scheme: blues and greens are next to each other on the color wheel.)

Related Color Scheme – also called analogous, this color scheme uses one main color and up to six neighbors next to it on the color wheel.

Related: How to Create a Whole Home Color Palette + a Hack for Perfectly Coordinated Colors Every Time!

Get your own color wheel

In order to apply color theory to your house and decorating, I recommend that you get yourself an inexpensive color wheel from Amazon. I find this one to be extra handy, but you can choose any one you like.

The Decorators Color Wheel

Play around with it. Observe where the colors are, and what colors are next to each other. Use it to refer back to when you need a refresher.


Once you get a handle on this basic color theory knowledge – especially undertones – you can apply it to so much of your decorating. Even if you only absorb the theory and not the terminology, you will be far ahead of where you were before!

To make it extra easy for you I’ve created a handy ‘Practical Color Theory’ cheat sheet. Just enter your email below to access this and all our handy decor downloads.

Do you have any questions about color theory? Does that help color make more sense?

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21 Comments

  1. Hi Shannon,,

    Thanks for the details on this. So true about neutrals and all the different undertones. I recently took a color class and never realized how much really goes into color theory and design. Thanks for taking the time to put this post together. I think a lot of people will benefit.

    1. There is a LOT of theory and information to color. I took classes in college on it too. But everyone doesn’t need to know all of it! Just enough to make it work in their own homes.

  2. Thanks for the summary. I basically understood everything already, but your diagrams are excellent and easy to follow. The problem is sometimes which colours and tones to use that will make me the happiest, but which the rest of the family, mainly my husband, can live with!

    1. Hmm. Yes. If your hubby has strong likes and dislikes it can be challenging. But you can totally find a compromise especially if you make good use of the undertones he likes and the colors you like. 🙂

  3. Yes, this has helped. I do remember the color wheel and some of the theory, but the idea to get an actual color wheel to see and compare where my chosen colors are is totally great! Doing this right now! Thanks!

    1. It’s actually more helpful than you’d think! I was surprised how much better I could see the colors with the color wheel too!

  4. What an awesome read. I am reading this in my living room and realizing this is just what I needed to know where to start in decorating our new home!
    Just found your blog and can not wait to read more!

  5. This is a great explanation of color. Having been an art major, this all makes perfect sense to me, HOWEVER, for some reason, when it comes to my home, I draw a blank. Every. Single. Time. I’ve been struggling with a couple of rooms for the 3 years we’ve been in this house. I think my biggest challenge is this – My living room color palette. I have olive, cream and deep blue. I feel like there needs to be a pop of something to pull it all together, but like I said, BLANK! Would love a suggestion or two to explore. Thanks!