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Choosing Your Color Palette: Understanding How to Choose and Use Color

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How to Choose and Use Color

No matter what décor you prefer, color is its central characteristic. This is true whether you prefer the neutral tones of minimalist décor, the vibrant hues of a maximalist style, or any point in between these two extremes.

Whether you’re redecorating your home or designing a new space, landing on the perfect color scheme is often a challenge. What’s the difference between analogous and complementary? Can colors really be warm or cool? What’s the “rule of three” and is it the same thing as 60-30-10?

This resource explains the basics of color theory, as well as how to choose a palette that reflects your personal style and easy ways to integrate color into your home’s décor.

Start with the Basics: Understanding the Color Wheel

Even if you never took a formal art class, you’re likely still familiar with the color wheel.12 Color wheel for art in the design of a flower

Most color wheels consist of 12 shades:

  • The three primary colors: Red, blue, and yellow
  • The three secondary colors: Purple, orange, and green
  • The six tertiary colors: The shades formed by combining the primary and secondary colors

The color wheel forms the basis of the six main color schemes.

  • Analogous uses three or more adjacent colors on the color wheel. Choose your main color and then choose two or more colors on either side of your main color. Analogous color schemes make it easy to harmonize the colors in a room.
  • Complementary uses two colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel. Popular choices include red/green and purple/yellow. Complementary schemes create an incredibly vibrant design, but designers advise caution, as it’s easy to make mistakes with a complementary color scheme.
  • Double contrast (sometimes called tetradic) is similar to complementary, only you use two complementary pairs: your dominant color and its complement, then a second color and its complement. If you’re looking to create a retro feel in a space, double contrast makes a good choice.
  • Monochromatic uses a single color, incorporating various tints, tones, and shades of that color throughout the space. Traditionally, monochromatic also makes use of neutrals, such as white, gray, or beige.
  • Split complementary offers a more subdued contrast than a strict complementary color scheme. In this palette, you choose your main color and then the two colors on either side of its complementary color, such as red paired with yellow-green and blue-green. It offers high contrast but with a bit more subtlety than complementary.
  • Triadic uses three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. This creates powerful contrasts and offers a similar richness of color as complementary but with a greater feeling of balance and harmony.

Choosing Your Perfect Colors

Luckily, when it comes to design, there are no right or wrong colors. This is your personal space; fill it with the colors that make you feel good, that express your personality or the feeling you want a space to evoke.

You can take inspiration from decorative items that you already have. For example, does the room currently feature a rug, large piece of artwork, or upholstery pattern? If so, use colors from this design, choosing neutral shades or tints for wall colors.

Your own personal style is another great starting point. Take a look inside your closet. Chances are, it’s full of clothing in colors you consider flattering, or that you just plain like. Why not use those colors throughout your home?

Explaining the Rules of Color

When it comes to design, you tend to hear a lot of “rules” about color, such as the Rule of Three. This rule describes how best to incorporate bold color into a room. For example, if you want a piece of furniture in a vibrant color, add that same color in at least two other spaces, such as a lamp or planter. Use the color from an area rug to paint an accent wall (or two) or in other small, decorative touches, such as a throw pillow or vase.

Closely related is the 60-30-10 rule. This directly relates to choosing three main colors for space and determining which is the dominant shade (60 percent), which is secondary (30 percent), and which is the accent color (10 percent). What this looks like in practice is walls (60), upholstery (30), and accessories (10). The 60-30-10 rule ensures the room remains balanced while still retaining a nice pop of contrast color.

Finally, understanding color temperature helps you choose which space to use which colors. Warm colors lend a feeling of vibrancy and energy to a room, whereas cool shades give a space a calm, relaxed feeling. This is why you tend to see warm colors in the living areas of a home and cool colors in bedrooms. Room size also dictates the choice between warm and cool, as smaller spaces employing a warm color scheme tend to feel claustrophobic, and larger spaces often feel stark and cold when decorated in cool tones.

Warm colors include reds, yellows, and oranges. Cool colors include blues, purples, and most greens (greenish yellow tends toward warm).

How to Use Color in Interior Design

Understanding how to use color in a space is as confusing for some people as deciding what palette you want. Obviously, work with your designer on this, but basic tips include:

  • Move from dark to light: This mimics the great outdoors, where nature gives us darker colors on the ground, medium shades at eye level, and lighter colors as our eyes drift upwards.
  • Make sure accents really pop: Your accent color should stand out from the rest of the color scheme. However, if you use your accent color too much, it loses its power. The 60-30-10 rule is a big help here.
  • Don’t be afraid of the color black: Black helps define a space, adds depth and dimension, and balances a color scheme. Black is both neutral and dramatic – a rare combination.
  • Go gray: As a neutral color, gray offers amazing versatility. It matches everything from pastels to bold, saturated colors, works with any decorating style, and can be either warm or cool.
  • Be careful with contrasts: Contrasting colors make a bold statement, but like any bold statement, use discretion. High contrasts within a room tend to make it feel smaller. At the same time, you can make a small space pop with bold colors and embrace that cozy feeling that comes with a small room.

As you work with your designer, you learn how to create powerful visuals with your use of color, creating a unique look that’s all your own.

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