Color Theory & Psychology For Interiors: Pick The Right Colors
Color theory may not be something you’ve encountered in depth, but it’s amazingly useful when working out a strategy for your interior project. When it comes to figuring out the paint and accent colors you want for your home, it can be difficult to know where to start. This guide will help you understand color relationships, the psychology of color, and ways to create and combine a color palette that will help accomplish your goals. Your palette should inspire paint color ideas, furniture accents, and overall decor ideas for your home and rooms, so let’s make your palette count!
In this guide, you will first find a chapter on the basics of color theory and some common color harmonies. Fun stuff, really easy, and you’ve probably seen a lot of it before. The next chapter, Psychology of color, dives into specific uses, affects and examples of many common colors. Since there are so many ways to approach designing an interior, the 3rd chapter focuses on a few different strategies for creating the best color palettes for your project. Finally, the last chapter is an example book with ideas and styles for various rooms of the house. See the table of contents to the right for further reference and be sure to check out the resources for further reading. Otherwise, let’s get started!
Table of Contents
1. Color Theory
- The Color Wheel
- Color Harmonies
2. Psychology of Color
3. Creating A Palette
- Your Current Interior and A New Palette
- Developing Your Room’s Color Scheme
- Flow of Color Through Your House
- Color Palette Strategies
4. Color In Action
- Living Room
- Dining Room
- Color Theory
- Creating Your Palette
- Psychology of Color
Color Theory is the study of how humans organize and use color. It encompasses the relationships that colors have with one another, the way we see color and the psychology of how color affects us. We’ve divided this section up into two main sections: The color wheel, and color harmonies. So, if you’re pretty much a boss at these subjects already, feel free to skip on down to the chapter on color psychology.
The Color Wheel
Raise your hand if you’ve heard of the color wheel *everybody raises hand*. Right. The color wheel provides a system to organize colors and understand the relationships found between each hue. It is typically the very first thing you learn about when diving into color theory because it is just so darn useful. The relationships between the hues are an excellent way to narrow down your search for interior color combinations for your home decor, and they will also help you understand fundamental color pattern logic. Think of this like your color alphabet, but instead of vowels and consonants, you have primary, secondary and tertiary colors.
In general, color mixing is based on three primary colors. In paint and most visual arts, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue. In print and printing, the primary colors are magenta, cyan and yellow. In light based technology, like televisions and computer screens, it is red, green and blue. While those are all good and fun, all you really need to worry about is the first: red, blue and yellow. By using three primary colors as a basis for all color mixing, we mimic the human eye’s trichromatic way of seeing color. I bet you didn’t know that little tidbit, did you!
Next, we have the product of mixing primary colors together. In visual arts, the red, yellow and blue primary colors are used to mix green, purple and orange. These are the secondary colors on the color wheel.
- Red + Yellow = Orange
- Yellow + Blue = Green
- Blue + Red = Violet
Tertiary colors – similar to secondary colors – are a mixture of the colros before them. To make a tertiary color, you mix a 2:1 ratio of two primary colors (in other words, mix a primary color with an adjacent secondary color).
- [Primary + Primary] + [Primary] = Tertiary
- [Primary] + [Secondary] = Tertiary
While the color wheel is very much about color mixing, it is also about finding color harmonies that work well together. That’s where your classic color schemes come in. Some you may have heard of, such as the classic complementary scheme (think red and green). Others, maybe not, so below are the most common color harmonies and then some. Once you find a harmonious scheme, you can also examine the colors through their tints, shades, and tone for further variation and interest – more on that at the end of the section.
This type of color harmony uses three colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. With an analogous color scheme, hues relate well to each other due to their proximity on the color wheel. As a result, you can achieve a warm or cool color palette using analogous colors.
A Complementary color scheme is often known as an opposite color scheme. This is due to placement on the color wheel which causes high contrast when paired. Colors directly across from each other on the color wheel are complementary colors. The three most common complementary color combinations are:
- Red and Green
- Yellow and Violet
- Blue and Orange
When complementary colors are placed together in an image, design, or room, they have the highest visual contrast out of most color pairings. The contrast is so high that the visual pairing of the two colors can be a little overwhelming for the eye. This is particularly the case if the color is pure hue, without any additive white, black, or gray. However, a striking and exciting complementary scheme may be just what you need to create the right mood.
Many color schemes for home decor feature three colors. It is an excellent color ratio that can add variety and interest to a home without adding much risk. A true triadic color harmony is made when three evenly spaced colors on the wheel are paired. One dominant color and two accents colors is the most common application. In addition to the extra pop, this harmony grants you more flexibility with any current pieces you want to incorporate.
Lesser-known color harmonies
Now that you know the most common harmonies, we can get into some less common – but still pretty awesome – harmonies at your disposal. Below are three lesser-known schemes:
Split Complementary Colors: The split complementary color scheme takes the complementary color idea and changes it by pairing one color with the two hues on either side of its complement on the color wheel. The benefit of this color scheme is that it relaxes the visual tension found between complementary colors. So, if you’d like to employ a complementary color harmony without so much tension, give split complementary a try.
Tetradic colors: Here’s another combination that uses a variation of complementary colors. This scheme creates a four color harmony by combining two sets of complementary colors into a single palette. A tetradic color scheme is also known as a rectangle color scheme. Picking the colors is the easy part, but balancing them through your space is a little more tricky. So, be sure that you stick to a strategy of either one dominant and three accents, or 4 equally represented colors. If you have an open floor plan, you might even change the dominant color of the four for each designated gathering place. This is a great way of creating a color palette for an entire floor.
Square colors: The square color scheme takes four colors that are equally placed on the color wheel. Imagine the various colors are points on a compass, and you pick the ones that represent North, East, South, and West on the face of the compass. Similar to a rectangle scheme, you can have one principle color in your design and use the others as accent colors.
Still more ways to pick harmonious colors
While these are not traditional color harmonies, strictly speaking, there are still two more common methods for choosing harmonious colors for your design: Monochromatic schemes and warm/cool schemes.
Monochromatic schemes: This type of color harmony uses a single hue and variations on that hue in a color scheme. Often, this includes using only the tint, shade, and tone of a single hue within a design to create a dynamic color scheme. It is among the easiest of color schemes to achieve, so it may be a good place to start if you’re unsure.
Warm/cool schemes: Examining colors based on a color temperature is the beginning of color psychology. It is how we interpret a set of colors to feel either warm or cool. It is why we use red for hot water and blue for cold on faucets and fixtures. If you can imagine yourself in a winter climate, you may first think of white snow, but many of the shades or undertones found within that white are blue, purple, and green. Conversely, imagine yourself in a warm climate, like the American Southwest, and you can see how reds, oranges, and yellows are considered warm colors. With this idea in mind, you can begin to tailor your whole space to either a cool or warm palette.
Tint, shade & tone
Once you understand the way that colors relate to each other, you can see a variety of ways to create many different colors. This variety multiplies even more when you begin to add white or black or gray to a single hue. Adding white will create a tint (this is where pastels come into a color palette), adding black creates a shade, and adding gray to a hue will create a tone.
With the ability to create so many different tints, shades, tones to hues, it can be difficult to narrow down a design or even determine how to mix or recreate an exact color. Pantone is a color company that has worked to standardize color mixing and color naming across industries. It has become the known standard in which all print, paint and graphic colors are used. Each year, Pantone comes out with a color (or colors) of the year, often reflecting what is currently happening in culture, design, and society. If you are looking for a color to inspire you or your space, you can use Pantone colors as a resource and translate exact hues across fabric, paint, and materials for your home.
So much of the world is full of color, and people respond to the world by how it makes them feel. The psychology of colors and feelings is so important that buildings and industries have been built around it. Hospitals use color and distinct color palettes that feel clean and relaxing. These are used as a way to aid in calming people down rather than choosing colors that may ramp up emotions. If you want to give your space a particular vibe or feeling, colors are a strong way to achieve that. Below is a breakdown of the psychological response we have to color and how you can use it to decorate your space. In this guide, you will find an analysis of how colors affect mood and great ways to create a particular mood in your home.
The color red is associated with excitement, energy, power, and passion. It can evoke physical responses, such as increases in metabolism, blood pressure and heart rate. It attracts attention more than any other color on the color wheel.
Using it in your space: Red is a great color for bold accents. You can energize a space and make bold color statements with red, and often it is all about the proportion of color. If you have a room that is mostly neutral or white, and you add in small pops of red, the eye will see those moments of red as the focal points in the room. Alternatively, painting your walls red can create an intimate and bold overall statement.
Exterior applications: The classic red front door is an excellent example of using the attention-getting aspect of red. It has become a classic design detail for traditional homes. Shades of red like wine or soft pinks are great ways to incorporate variations in the hue to your exterior. This is a perfect choice for Victorian style homes.
Create your mood: If you are interested in creating a room with strength and passion, you can use a red with a little bit of a black undertone. Imagine a lipstick or fire engine red, and use that as your inspiration for a bold color. Alternatively, you can use pinks or berry colored reds for a more subtle effect.
Because orange is a mixture of red and yellow, it will take on aspects of each color and create a unique blend of psychological responses. It is the color of joy and sunshine. It evokes warmth, security, encouragement, and fun. It can bring physical comfort when used in an interior.
Using it in your space: A bright orange can be an unexpected element in any interior space; you can use the brightness to your advantage through vibrantly painted pieces of artwork or decorative items in your room. A darker shade of orange can create a rust or pumpkin color that is ideal for bringing warmth into a space. This is a great color for the tropical, Mediterranean, or Tuscan style.
Exterior applications: Brickwork, stained concrete, pavers, stucco, Saltillo tiles, or trim colors are great ways to bring in some of the sunny warmth of orange. Orange is a great earth tone that can bring natural colors to your exterior.
Create your mood: If you are looking to add enthusiasm and happiness to a space, consider painting a single wall in a sunny orange color or use it with a few shades of yellow in a striped wall pattern. You can bring in some fun with throw rugs or accent pillows that are orange creamsicle colored.
Yellow is considered the color of emotions. It is the color of happiness, cheer, and optimism. It stimulates the brain and can be energizing. Many consider it to be a color that signifies honor and loyalty. Yellow is known as the strongest psychological color.
Using it in your space: Consider a light tint of yellow on your walls to brighten up and bring light into a space. You can also add a little gray to yellow for a muted tone that can be ideal for an understated interior. A fully saturated yellow can be bright and cheerful, and you can edit it down to accent walls or decorative pieces to not overwhelm your space.
Exterior applications: When it comes to house color, yellow is a classic choice. You can pair it with a white or gray trim for a beautiful exterior look. You can also bring in a bright pop of yellow through small painted accents on your front porch for eye-catching curb appeal.
Create your mood: If you are looking to create a cheerful space, yellow is the way to go. Consider sunny motifs (sunflowers work well) you can repeat in a few key pieces of artwork or fabric choices. You can also find a great buttery yellow for a relaxing wall color. This is particularly useful in rooms that do not have a lot of natural light.
If you are looking for balance or a calming interior, green is the perfect choice for your space. It is the color that evokes harmony, freshness, growth, and fertility. It can also be strongly associated with safety. It is a color of tranquility and restoration, and can slow the metabolism and have a calming effect.
Using it in your space: This is a versatile color for interior spaces. A lime green will have the added cheerfulness of the yellow undertones, and a dark green can feel sumptuous and understated. Because this color is relaxing, you can use it in large applications without overwhelming the senses, and create a very relaxed atmosphere.
Exterior applications: This is another excellent choice for exterior paint colors for your home. There is variety in the shades of green that work well on exteriors; anything from a hunter green to a pale mint color would work.
Create your mood: To create a mood of tranquility or calmness, you can use soft greens in your wall colors and decorative accents. It can easily be paired with similar soft blues, beiges, or gray for an all over relaxed feel.
Blue is the color of intelligence, serenity, reflection, and communication. It can clear the mind and aid in concentration. Research has shown that blue is a popular favorite color.
Using it in your space: Darker shades of blue are perfect for dramatic impact without the high-energy that red creates. If you are looking for something relaxing, using a lighter blue or a sky blue can open up a space and create a tranquil feel. The pairing of blue with white is a classic and timeless palette choice for any interior.
Exterior applications: Slate blue paint or stains are a classic way to dress your exterior; this is particularly the case for wood siding (clapboard and shingle style look great in blue hues). If your home is a more coastal style a pastel or sky blue paint is a great choice for a beach look.
Create your mood: For a soothing or tranquil space, use light blues (robin’s egg or sea glass colors work well). You can pair it with white for an airy feel or with yellow for a sunny look.
Violet is the color of royalty. It evokes feelings of luxury, nobility, and extravagance. Softer hues of purple or violet are proven colors for meditation or contemplation.
Using it in your space: Dark or rich violet tones can create a dramatic focal point in any application. You may consider a deep violet sofa for interest, or you may want to cover your walls in a sumptuous purple wallpaper for a luxurious feel. Lighter colors like lavender or a light plum, are the perfect option for bedroom paint colors. It is an ideal color choice for French or English Country style homes.
Exterior applications: House color combinations that include a mid-tone eggplant color is an ideal option for trim details, porch railings, or shutters. You can also use brighter purples for patio or deck furniture and create a welcoming outdoor seating area.
Create your mood: For a royal or extravagant space, the deeper shades of violet can create the perfect mood. Alternatively, if you are decorating a room for contemplation or meditation, you may want to incorporate lighter or more subtle purples into your decor.
The psychology of brown evokes nature, earthiness, warmth, and a positive feeling. It is known to be a quietly supportive color.
Using it in your space: With wood finishes like chocolate or espresso, the darker tones of brown are great ways to style your home with furniture. You can use it for high contrast when pairing it with vibrant colors like salmon or baby blue. For a softer look, you many consider a neutral shade of taupe.
Exterior applications: Chocolate brown exteriors are a classic choice for historical homes. You may want to try an exterior paint with a purple undertone for a rich color.
Create your mood: For a warm or natural feel to your room, consider using wood details across all surfaces. It will create a supportive and earthy neutral decor. Alternatively, for something more serious or strong, you can bring in darker browns into bright interiors.
Surprisingly, gray is the one color that is a psychological neutral. The human brain does not have an emotional or physical response to gray. In interiors and the art world, it does symbolize serenity, strength, sophistication, and glamour.
Using it in your space: If you are looking for a soft and delicate color, a light gray is the way to go. If you want something stronger, consider a darker gray like a deep graphite. When it comes to gray, it is important to pay attention to the undertones. Because of its neutrality, the difference between a cool gray and a warm gray will show through in most applications. If the other colors in your palette are on the cool side, find a cool gray to match. If your palette is in the warmer tones, find a warm gray as well.
Exterior applications: Gray can be used in exteriors with natural stonework, paint, or pavers. With exterior paint, you can create a neutral look to your home and use other hues in the trim to highlight architectural details.
Create your mood: You can create a soothing and neutral space with warm grays in light tints. Additionally, you can enhance a room’s sophistication and glamour by incorporating a darker gray, like gunmetal, and pair it with a bright violet or a chocolate brown.
Creating A Palette
Creating a color palette is as vast and varied as the number of paint swatches at the paint store. There are so many possibilities; it can be hard to narrow it down or know where to start. You can certainly use the various color harmonies in the color wheel or use color psychology to help narrow down your choices. You can also use what you already have or the function of a particular space to inform your color choices. Inspiration is everywhere, and here are a few approaches that can help you in choosing paint colors and developing your palette.
Your Current Interior And A New Palette
Home decor is a process that often unfolds over time, and in many cases, you might be redecorating and using materials or furniture that you already have in your new look. There are many ways to blend the old and the new, and often what drew you to those original pieces in the first place will translate well in your new space.
Use it for inspiration
One great way to find a palette is to look at the furniture, fixtures, and finishes that you already have for inspiration. Look at each with a fresh eye, and figure out what you loved about it in the first place, and why you want to keep it. Also, it is possible that you can use the colors in the fabric or finish of a piece of furniture for inspiration. For example, you have a chair with a plaid fabric. If you take one dominate color from that chair as part or your new palette, the seat as a whole will work in the new look. Find something in what you already have and use it for color inspiration.
Design over it
Maybe you have a piece of furniture or flooring that you can’t change at this time, but you would like to eventually. You can still move forward with your plan for a new look, and develop a palette that doesn’t acknowledge that transitional piece. You can blend these transitional or placeholder pieces into your new palette by adding large area rugs or throw pillows/blankets draped over furniture. Once you find your new palette and incorporate pieces into your space, you might find that things end up working beautifully.
Pull from other rooms
One way to get inspiration for your home decor and palette is to use items from other rooms and add them to your newly styled space. Maybe, there is a club chair in a beautiful coral color that has always found a home in the guest bedroom and is now the perfect shade of pink for your sitting room. By shopping for color in the other rooms of your house, you might be surprised to find a color palette waiting for you. It will make you see your whole house in a brand new way, and often inspire you to redecorate the other rooms as well.
Developing Your Room’s Color Scheme
When it comes to developing a color scheme for your room, the first thing you want to look at is the function of the space and the furniture or fixtures. There are a few ways to narrow down your paint color combinations for each room.
A principal color with accents
Most color palettes consist of one main or principal color and two to four accent colors. For visual interest a palette often does not use every color in equal amounts, try out different combinations of your colors to figure out which one(s) look best as the dominate color. You can do this easily with paint swatches. Layer the swatches over one another in different combinations, with corners, edges, or pieces fanned out and allow one or two of these colors to be layered on top. When you see a combination that looks good to you, the top color can be your dominant color and all the others can become accents in your space. You can also use a color palette generator to figure out the proportions and colors that you love.
For some, the look of the main color with accents simply doesn’t work for their aesthetic, and they are looking for something a little different. A bold answer to this is to use two main colors equally and little or no accent colors. This method is striking when there is high contrast, and subtle when the colors are similar in saturation. A great example of this is a room that uses black and white (or navy and white) as two main colors. Additionally, a room in a light tan and a buttery yellow is a subtle answer to a dual-color palette.
Flow Of Color Through Your House
While many people design their rooms separately, it can be very beneficial to consider the flow of color through your home. Each room can have its distinct style, color, and mood. If you look at your house as a whole, you will want them to relate in some way. There are a few difference approaches you can take to making the look of your home feel like a cohesive whole.
Create a neutral
Your spaces throughout the house can easily relate if they have trim or flooring or a neutral that is same from space to space. Neutrals are thought of as beige, white, gray, or greige and these are great colors to use throughout your home. You can also choose a more chromatic hue to create a colorful neutral that is used in every room. The idea is to use a color that you love in a way that enhances your spaces and becomes a background color. This might mean a slate blue throughout your home or even a rich brown. If a color is applied often enough and in various places, it will blend into your palette and become a visually neutral color. Your eye will rest on it in every space and find visual interest in other pops of color.
Create a whole house palette
If you want your home to have a single palette for all rooms, you can easily develop a whole house palette. The idea comes from choosing approximately five colors for your whole house and adding in tints, shades, and tones to expand your palette to a wide array of color choices. Having variations of these five colors in your space will make the underlying hues of all rooms feel like a cohesive whole. You can play with the proportion of these hues from room to room, creating spaces that are light and airy or dark and intimate depending on how you apply them. To create your five color palette, you will want to find a white, a neutral (gray, beige, or greige), a bold color, a secondary color, and an accent color.
Find a common language
You can vary the hues you have throughout your home and have all of your spaces have a common language. Often this can be created by using the same level of saturation in your color palette. For example, if you are looking for a beach or tropical feel to your home, you can choose colors that vary but have the same amount of white added to it. Pastels work well in this style, and when selecting paint colors, you can match the percentage of white added to all of your paints to create a common language between your hues. 10%, 20%, or 60% white in all of your paints will make a rainbow of colors speak to each other. You can create a similar language with the amount of black or gray added to the colors in your palette.
Color Palette Strategies
To create your color palette, you will first and foremost want to find good color combinations that you love. If you don’t love the color direction, you will find yourself changing it not long after you finish a space. If there is a shade of blue that you gravitate towards, use that as a jumping off point for your design. Then you can use the various color harmonies from the color wheel to develop a palette of colors that go together for your home. It is always a good idea to find a white and a neutral for your palette; you will find that you need them in almost every space. Ceilings, trim work, and fabrics are places in your design that often call for one of these colors. It is best to settle on your main colors first because the undertones of your white and neutral you pick before hand may not go with the colors you choose in the end.
A monochromatic color scheme is a great way to create a palette for a single room or your whole house. You can choose a color that inspires you and add black, white, or gray to the color to create a wide-ranging palette. In a palette that uses the color red as inspiration, you can have various pinks, reds, dusty roses, and wine colors for your interior spaces.
As mentioned in the Color Harmonies section, analogous colors are three hues that sit next to each other on the color wheel. This is an excellent way to have different colors that relate to one another and have an aesthetic that works well in any space. For variation from room to room, consider changing up the proportion of each color across different areas. For example, a green, blue-green, blue palette you can use green as the main color in one room, blue-green as the main color in another room, and blue in another. As you switch from room to room, you can alternate the other two colors in the palette as accent colors.
The warm colors on the wheel are the reds, oranges, and yellows. This creates a warm and inviting space in any decor. Many distinct design styles lend themselves to a warm color palette. Tuscan, Mediterranean, and Southwestern styles are great ways to decorate with warm colors. You might find that a leather couch in a brown with orange undertones and a subtle yellow on the walls is a perfect way to bring the warmth into your space.
Cool colors are the greens, blues, and purples on the color wheel. These colors often have a relaxed and calming effect in decor. This is a great set of colors for areas of your home that you are looking to relax in. Bedrooms and sitting rooms, or even a reading nook are opportunities to design with cool colors.
Colors In Action
Sometimes seeing is believing when it comes to finding the color palette that works for your personal taste and home decor. Below you will find a series of inspirational palettes that you can draw upon or use as a springboard for your palette ideas.
This room is the first place that people get a sense of your home and your style, for some this is a perfect room for bold statement pieces or colors and for others, it is an excellent way to have a subdued palette for a relaxed welcome.
This space is where you will spend a lot of time relaxing in front of the television, reading books, entertaining, or spending time with family. Because this space has so many functions and so much time is spent here, it is often the focus of style and design for a home. Living room color schemes can showcase your favorite hue in a bold wall color, attractive throw pillows, or brightly colored furniture.
This space is where you break bread with friends and family or layout art projects on the dining table. When figuring out your dining room color schemes, know that the way you use this room is a perfect opportunity to showcase color through your furniture, wall decor, or wall paint.
This space has a lot of fixed finishes that often inform the color palette in a kitchen. Countertops, backsplashes, cabinetry, and flooring take up much of this space, and can enhance your color choices. When developing your kitchen color schemes, choosing a light, dark, or colorful finish for any of these fixtures can have a significant visual impact on your overall space.
This space is where a home business is managed, the household bills are taken care of, or even crafts or artwork is created. It is a place of ideas and busy-ness. This might be a room where your color palette can spark your creativity or help you stay on task.
The bedroom is the place where the interior design reflects the people that live in the room more than any other space in the house. It is very personalized, and an intimate place for representing who you are. Many people view their bedroom as their sanctuary, the place where they can rest and rejuvenate themselves, and feel prepared for anything. Bedroom color schemes can reflect someone’s personality or reflect the way they want their room to make them feel. This might be a great room for neutral, bold, cool, or warm palettes.
Similarly to kitchens, this space and the colors in it are often dictated by the fixed finishes. The tile surround in the tub or shower, the countertop, the color of the sink or toilet, and the color of the flooring can all inform the palette for a bathroom. When developing your bathroom color schemes, you can choose to use these hues as inspiration, or find a way to blend them in with a new palette that is all your own.