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In this post: Color is one of the easiest and most effective ways to change the look of any room. Learn the basics of color in interior design, how to use a color wheel, the difference between color schemes in interior design and home color palettes, as well as how and where to use color in your home.
Color in interior design is a powerful tool. When you choose the right colors, you can make a space feel lighter, friendlier, more glamorous, more elegant, or whatever feeling you want to achieve. And when you create a whole home color palette, especially if you use a color wheel for decorating, your home instantly looks more pulled together and stylish.
What Is Color?
“In physics, color is essentially the way our eyes and brain perceive different wavelengths of light reflected off objects.” [source]
Color is one of two key ways that you can create beauty and cohesive flow in your home decor. (Finding your style is the other.)
What are the 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, 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
What is the Importance of Color in Interior Design? What is Color Psychology?
Different colors have different meanings, can influence our creativity and productivity, and create different emotions and moods.
Color psychology is the study of colors in relation to human behavior.
Put simply, the colors we use in our homes can affect how we feel and how we act. So it’s important to choose the colors we use wisely.
The psychology of color in interior design
Here are a few common colors and their positive and negative emotions and connotations.
energetic, feminine, love, romance
stimulating, energetic, action, drama
joyful, happy, sunny, creative, stimulating
pessimistic, hyperactive, superficial
optimistic, happy, bright, cheerful, alert, sunny, powerful
tough to get a good shade of yellow
calming, balanced, harmony, life, freshness, stability, peace
ambition, greed, jealousy
serenity, tranquility, softness
peaceful, cooling, quiet, powerful, rich
withdrawn, depressive, frigid
power, luxury, elegance, creative
sad feelings, frustration,
glamorous, prestigious, sophisticated
emotional, sensitive, mysterious
strong, elegant, formal, mysterious
light, innocent, cool, clean
sterile, associated with hospitals
safe, secure, comforting
What is Color Theory
Color theory dates back before even Leonardo DaVinci’s time. Color theory in interior design is the study of colors and how to use them in harmony in your home to create the flow and atmosphere (feel) you want your home to convey.
Why using color theory in interior design is important
The colors you use in your home should not be chosen individually, in isolation, but rather with your entire home in mind. They should coordinate and they should assist in achieving the feelings you want in your home.
A basic understanding of color theory will help you to choose lovely color combinations that look beautiful together and flow seamlessly throughout your home.
Color theory in interior design terms
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
What is a Color Scheme in Interior Design? What is a Whole Home Color Palette?
A color scheme in interior design is essentially a framework for choosing your specific color palette.
A color scheme is a general framework used to put your colors together. It’s based on the color wheel and color theory.
A color palette is the specific colors you choose for your home. It includes the names of your paint colors and specific fabrics, etc.
The four main color schemes in interior design
Monochromatic. 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.
Complementary. Two-Color Scheme – also called complementary, 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.
Split-Complementary. Multi-Color Scheme – also called split-complementary, with this color scheme you choose one main color and then the two colors on either side of its opposite. It offers rather a dramatic look.
Analogous 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. A fun color scheme, best used with the 60-30-10 color rule (see below).
There are other color schemes too, but these are the most common and will give you plenty of options.
How to Use a Color Wheel in Interior Design – the Basics
Choosing colors that work well together to get that great flow is sometimes tricky. But it’s much easier if you have – and know how to use – a color wheel to help you!
What is a color wheel?
A color wheel is probably not something you’ve used in a really long time, if at all. But it is a handy tool to help visualize which colors will work nicely together. And it can help you to decide on a color scheme for your home.
A color wheel is a chart that helps us to understand colors and how they relate to one another and is a very handy tool to have in your decor arsenal! (And it may just save you the cost of many color mistakes!)
How to use a color wheel for decorating and choosing colors for your home
To choose colors for your home using an interior design color wheel:
1. Turn the wheel so that your favorite color family is located at the top, under the “Main Color” title. Let’s use blue-violet as an example.
2. Next, locate the coordinating color(s) on the color wheel for the color scheme you’d like. For example:
In a monochromatic color scheme, you will use the various shades of blue-violet beneath the main color on the color wheel.
In a complementary color scheme, yellow-orange, and its shades, tints, and tones will be the complementary colors you use with the blue-violet.
In a split-complementary color scheme, yellow-oranges, and red-oranges will be your coordinating colors.
An analogous color scheme (also called a related color scheme), green, blue-green, blue-violet, and violet will be among the colors you use to go with your blue.
3. From these basic coordinating color families, you can choose paint colors, fabrics, and all the necessary decor items for your space.
My favorite color wheel for decorating
There are several color wheels out there. But my all-time favorite color wheel is this one, available on Amazon.
It’s meant specifically for interior design, so it includes colors that are more relevant to decorating than one meant for web or graphic design would.
It also has the color schemes summarized and a handy guide to colors that harmonize on it too.
If you’re unsure about the cost of getting a color wheel, keep in mind the potential cost of making color mistakes in your house – the paint, the fabrics, the furniture. If you’re decorating one or more spaces in your home, the return on your color wheel purchase could be huge!
Understanding Color Temperature (Undertones)
All colors – including white – are made up of other colors. Those other colors create something called an undertone. So, what are undertones?
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.
There are two types of undertones, warm undertones, and cool undertones.
- Warm colors with undertones like red and yellow feel cozy.
- Cool colors with undertones like blue and green feel calming.
Undertones matter in your home decor because they affect how your eyes see the colors you use.
3 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 PAINT COLOR IS TO LOOK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAINT CHIP/COLOR SWATCH. This is especially true for white and neutral paint colors. 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!
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.
Undertones matter especially in decorating with neutrals as you’ll want to decide whether you have:
- Cool neutrals (with green, blue, or violet undertones) or
- Warm neutrals (with red, orange, or yellow undertones)
3 Tips for Choosing Your Home Color Palette
Remember a color scheme is a general framework used to put your colors together. It’s based on the color wheel and color theory. While a color palette is the specific colors you choose for your home. It includes things like the names of your paint colors and specific fabrics, etc.
01| Ask yourself 4 questions before you choose colors
You should ask yourself 4 questions when you’re choosing a whole home color palette:
1. How do you want your home to feel?
Because colors evoke feelings, you will want to choose colors that evoke the feelings you want in your home. Do you want your home to feel relaxed and cozy or invigorating and energizing?
Warm colors like reds, oranges, and yellows will make your home feel cozy and lively. Cool colors like blues, greens, and purples are chill and relaxed.
Decide how you want your home to feel overall and choose colors that will help create those feelings.
2. What colors do you love?
Choosing a color that you love, will help ensure you won’t get sick of it any time soon. Granted if you love big bold colors, you may not want to go and paint every single wall in that color. But your favorite colors – in clothing, home decor, cars, etc. – can be a great jumping-off point for your whole home color scheme.
My favorite color happens to be black. Just one look at my everyday wardrobe and my favorite T-shirt that reads “black is my happy color” will tell you that.
Do you have a favorite color? Perhaps a glance at your wardrobe will help you determine what colors you are naturally drawn to?
By starting with a color that you love, it is unlikely that you’ll get tired of your color scheme quickly.
3. What colors are you stuck with?
Undoubtedly, you will have some things in your home that have to stay. Whether due to budget, time, or talent, you will need to take stock of these unchangeable elements in your home. Some of these things may be flooring, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, countertops, faucets, wall tiles, etc.
Unless you’re planning on renovating these as you decorate, they are fixed and—like it or not—play into the color palette you will choose for your decorating.
Most of us can’t change or renovate everything all at once. Some things have to remain long-term in your home.
Take cues as to colors you have to implement based on the unchangeable things in your home, like floors or cabinets that you’re not replacing for a while (or ever).
Pay attention to those fixed things and their undertones:
- What is the undertone of your home’s woodwork?
- What is the undertone of your home’s metal finishes?
4. Do you want a high-contrast color scheme or something a little more soothing?
Take a look at the four most common color schemes above again, paying particular attention to their descriptions.
If you love high contrast color, you may want to utilize a complementary color scheme.
But if you want more of a soothing space without jarring pops of color, stick with a monochromatic color scheme (particularly one with plenty of neutrals).
02| Keep the 60-30-10 color rule in mind
The 60-30-10 rule is a basic and timeless color in interior design rule that states that 60% of the room should be a dominant color, 30% should be a secondary color (or pattern/texture) and 10% should be an accent. It’s a rule that when followed brings balance to the colors used in a space.
- 60% is the Main Color. The easiest way to incorporate your main color into over half of your space is to use your main color on the walls. If your main color is a bright color, you may not want to do that though. But if you do, try to use plenty of neutral colors too, to keep the space from feeling overwhelming.
- 30% is an Additional Color. The purpose behind the additional color is to bring some life and interest to the space. It’s best to use this additional color on furniture, rugs, and curtains.
- 10% is the Accent Color. Generally, the accent color will be the brightest or most intense color in a space. You can utilize this accent color on vases, throw pillows, candles, and various other accessories. The benefit of using your accent color on these things is that they can be changed with the seasons or when you get bored of a specific color.
Our living room is mainly black and beige. By keeping the bigger things neutral, we can change out the accents with the season.
03| THE best hack for choosing colors that work perfectly together every time!
Want to know my biggest hack for choosing colors?
Pull all your colors from an inspiration piece.
Your inspiration piece can be a multi-colored couch or a bedspread, a piece of art, or even a swatch of fabric you LOVE. Professional designers have already spent the time to put the colors together to create these things, so take advantage of that and pull your individual colors from a great piece!
Just be sure your inspiration piece works with the fixed or unchangeable items in your home such as flooring and countertops, etc!
Choose the Individual Colors for Your Whole Home Color Palette
The key to creating a great home color palette for your house is to use a limited number of colors – and to use them in different ways in each space. This will give you that cohesive flow you want, without every room looking identical.
Keeping in mind the color scheme you want to use, how your want your home to feel, and which undertones are already in your house, choose the following for your home color palette:
- A white
- A neutral
- One main color
- A second color
- A third color
For more help with your home paint palette, check out our course, Decorating Uncomplicated, which includes 8 done-for-you home color palettes!
10 No-Commitment Ways to Add Color to Your Home
Look at photos of any of the rooms in our home and you’ll see that I’m a ‘neutrals girl’ through and through. You see, I’m afraid of committing to any one single color because I know myself well enough to know that I tire of color very quickly. And it can seem very jarring to me to have bursts of color around the room.
For those reasons, I prefer to decorate with neutral colors. I paint walls in neutrals because while a wall can be painted over, such as when one accidentally chooses the wrong color, it can mean a lot of extra work. I prefer to choose neutral-colored furniture too so there’s a neutral base to work with when I want to change things up, as I inevitably do.
But that doesn’t mean I NEVER want color in my space. Personally, I crave a little more color in the late winter when everything is incredibly blah outside or in the heat of summer when refreshment is needed.
So how does one add color in interior design without committing to any one or two colors for the long haul?
By using a handful of these 10 no-commitment ways to add color to your decor, of course!
1. Add flowers
Cut flowers not only add some life and organic shapes to your room, but they can also add a splash of color whenever the mood strikes. Grocery store blooms are very inexpensive for those with a small budget. But kudos to you if you find and make friends with the local florist who will create a bouquet from in-season blooms to suit any budget! Or you could even go faux, and make your own reusable arrangement!
2. Trust the faithful throw pillow
Throw pillows come in all shapes and sizes and can generally be found rather economically if you’re willing to look. I like to buy the Ikea feather throw pillow inserts and then just swap out the covers with ones from Etsy or Society6 when the mood strikes.
3. Add banners or bunting
DIY bunting or store-bought banners not only add a splash of color, but they can also make your home feel more festive, cheerful, and whimsical too. This is perfect if those are some of the desired feelings you want your home to convey!
4. Fill your home with plants
If you’re are far more talented than I and have a green thumb instead of a black one, plants can add color and cleaner air to your home too.
5. Add colorful art
There are so many places you can find downloadable and printable art these days – including our own Etsy shop – that it’s easy to swap out prints in frames whenever you feel like adding a splash of color – or even a different saying – to your walls or surfaces, without painting. You can even get large-scale art on a budget!
6. Display your books
There’s been quite the trend lately of either wrapping books in plain paper or turning them backward, spine in, to help them blend in better. Plus, you can use pretty reference or fiction books as decor as well. If you’re looking to up some color and you own those books anyway, you might as well put them on display.
7. Add wallpaper – of the removable type!
If you’ve got a little more time on your hands, and don’t mind the work, removable wallpaper may just be the ticket to a more colorful space without the scary commitment of a permanent wallpaper. Try applying it to just a single wall to draw attention to it, or apply it to a thin MDF panel, mounting it to the wall and completing it with a bit of trim.
8. Cozy up with throw blankets
The companion of throw pillows, throw blankets can be heavy or light depending on the season and are even easier to switch out than other colorful accents. Bonus – they fold up pretty compact for storage.
10. Change the curtains
If you’re craving a more colorful space, you can always hang colorful curtains. For a pop of inexpensive color, use curtain ring clips and hang anything from flat sheets to scarves to painted drop cloths.
So as you can see, if you’re a neutral lover like me, or if you’re just on a budget, you can add, take away and swap out whatever colors you like easily with these 10 no-commitment ways to add color to your decor!
Books for Using Color in Interior Design, Home Color Palettes, and Color Schemes in Interior Design
If you’d like to study color in interior design further, or just look at how others are using color in their homes, you might like these books:
More Interior Design Tips
Now that you know how to use color in your home, you may want to read our other posts about decorating your home:
Do you have a good grasp of using color in interior design? Have you chosen a home color palette for your house? Do you know how to use a color wheel?