So you want to learn about color theory, do you? Excellent. But where to begin with such a complex subject matter? Color inherentlyhas a very real mental and physical effect on people; thus, it should be used with intention and care. Everything else being equal, color alone can set or change a mood, attract or deflect attention, energize or soothe, or even become the focal point all on its own. The ability to use color conscientiously in your décor will help to bring about wonderful effects no matter your style.
It’s no wonder that “color can be your most powerful design element if you learn to use it effectively” (tigercolor.com).
So now that we’ve established the importance of color itself, let’s look at how we can create logical structure for color use, or in other words, let’s look at color theory. Color theories aim to put order in the use of colors – Why do certain colors look well together when others do not? How can I know which colors will be most impactful? What can I do to choose the right colors in my design?
Since the 1700s, around the time of Isaac Newton’s theory of color, the color theory tradition has been in study and in practice, even through today. In this article, we will discuss the Color Wheel, Color Harmony, Color Meanings, and Color Use.
THE COLOR WHEEL
As with anything that is studied and dissected repeatedly, the color wheel has undergone many variations by scientists and artists over the past several centuries. In fact, these variations continue to cause debate.
However, because the most common version of the color wheel is still based on the 12 colors of the traditional RYB color model, this is the wheel we will focus on. After all, really “any color wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit”.
A traditional RYB color wheel.
On the color wheel are found three distinct “layers” of colors: (1) primary colors, (2) secondary colors, and (3) tertiary, or intermediate, colors.
(Let’s pause here. White and black is a classic color combination for a reason – the ultimate in color contrast. But our focus in the color wheel section of this article covers only the colors represented on the color wheel itself.)
The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. They are called “primary” for two reasons: (1) they are hues that cannot be created by mixing any combination of other colors, and, conversely, (2) all other colors are created by the mixing or combining of these three colors.
This display of Bernhardt chairs includes two of the three primary colors – red and yellow.
The secondary colors on the RYB color wheel are green, orange, and purple (sometimes called violet). They are the colors that fall right between two of the primary colors – between blue and yellow is green, between yellow and red is orange, and between red and blue is purple.
The orange walls around this curved bookcase represent one of the secondary colors.
The tertiary colors, also known as intermediate colors, are the colors that fall between each primary and secondary color. There are six tertiary colors, and although they are sometimes identified by distinct color names such as vermillion and chartreuse, they are generally identified by a two-word name that includes the two hues from which they are derived (e.g., “red-orange,” “blue-green,” etc.).
This teal throne chair provides a great example of the tertiary blue-green color.
Now that we understand the basic color levels on the color wheel, let’s discuss how those colors work together to create color harmony. Several color combinations have traditionally been considered particularly aesthetic. These combinations, involving at least two colors with a fixed relationship within the color wheel, are called color harmonies (or color chords).
When we think of “harmony,” we think of something with a pleasing arrangement of parts. Thus, color harmony connotes something that is visually pleasing or appealing. Generally, things that are visually appealing have some sense of order and balance – color harmonies are neither bland nor chaotic, but rather have an innate interesting and structured appeal. In other words, color harmony is a dynamic equilibrium.
We will build upon our knowledge of the color wheel to discuss some of the more common points of color harmony formulas.
Looking at a standard 12-part color wheel, analogous colors are any three adjacent colors on that wheel. For example, magenta, red, and vermillion are analogous colors because they line up next to each other.
When analogous colors are used in design, generally one of the three colors is the dominant color, while the other two play a secondary role.
By definition, complementary colors are any two colors on the color wheel that are directly opposite each other. Red and green (for example, this green peacock Cappellini chair against a red wall), blue and orange, and purple and yellow are complementary color combinations. On their opposing color wheel locations, when paired together, these colors have very high contrast. This characteristic brings with it its challenges in design that will be discussed later.
This small milk jug by Knibb Design, for example, showcases the beauty of pairing the complementary colors of indigo and a custard yellow.
Colors of Nature
While this is not technically color wheel-based, the use of colors based on nature is a beautiful lesson in color harmony. No matter where the particular colors fall in the color wheel or their technical or theoretical compatibility, a harmonious scheme is created by a color combination found in, or reflective of, nature.
Efforts to determine and define the meanings of colors has produced so much information it would be impossible to reproduce it all here. For starters, a color’s meaning largely depends upon the culture and circumstances in which it is displayed. The same color can also be interpreted multiple ways depending on the mood, paradigm, and emotional state of the observer.
Recognizing that this brief article on Color Theory will fall short in providing adequate descriptions of the meanings of certain colors, we would still like to give a short description of some colors’ general meanings for your consideration in using these colors in your décor decisions. (Color meanings adapted from here.)
White – It’s not a surprise that white is associated with the color of angels and heaven; its meanings lean toward the ethereal to be sure. Meanings of white include purity, completeness, perfection, innocence, and wholeness.
Grey – Neither white nor black but somewhere decidedly in between, grey is the color of compromise. Meanings of grey include non-emotionality, detachment, and indecisiveness.
Black – The essence of darkness, black excels at keeping secrets bottled up. Meanings of black include secrets, unanswered questions, sadness, and mystery.
Pink – Associated with babies, it’s no surprise that the meanings of pink include nurturing, unconditional love, immaturity, silliness, and girlishness.
Red – One of the most powerful colors, red has a variety of strong meanings. These include energy, ambition, action, determination, anger, and passion.
Brown – Well represented throughout the natural world, brown is considered a highly approachable and versatile color. Meanings of brown include friendliness, seriousness, security, protection, comfort, and wealth.
Orange – A social, genuine color that promotes positive communication and optimistic outlooks. Interestingly, other meanings of orange are exactly opposite in their superficiality and pessimism.
Yellow – This color is among the happiest of the colors on the spectrum, having a large influence of the mind and intellect. (Speaking of intellect, isn’t this yellow folding hanging chair brilliant?) Meanings of yellow include optimism, cheerfulness, impatience, and cowardice.
Green – The color of growth and balance, green can represent both sides of the emotional spectrum. Meanings of green include self-reliance, freshness, life, envy, and possessiveness.
Turquoise – Associated with calmness and clarity, turquoise is an excellent color for communication. The color is also associated with idealism and impracticality.
Blue – “True blue” is a phrase that connotes the meaning of the color itself: peace and trust. Along with integrity and loyalty, however, meanings of blue include frigidity and also conservatism.
Indigo – This bluish-purple hue is associated with high levels of sensitivity. The meanings of indigo include intuition, idealism, structure, ritual, and addiction.
Purple – It certainly isn’t just a color for flowers and princess dresses, although purple is the color for all things imaginative. Meanings of purple include creativity, individuality, immaturity, and impracticality.
Magenta – The epitome of equilibrium and harmony, magenta is both a universally common-sensible and emotional color. (And is, thus, an excellent choice for this Moroso Bouquet chair.) Meanings of magenta include spirituality, practicality, sensible, and balance.
Silver – A fluid color that, throughout history, has been used in relation to the moon and, consequently, Lady Luna’s ebb and flow. Meanings of silver include femininity, emotionality, mystery, and sensitivity.
Gold– Unsurprisingly, gold is the color of success and victory, luxury and sophistication, elegance and extravagance. Its meanings include abundance, prosperity, quality, prestige, value, affluence, and material wealth.
Now that we understand how colors relate to themselves (color wheel), which colors look well together and why (color harmony), and some of the meanings of colors (color meanings), let’s discover how to modify those colors for their most effective use in your décor.
In this section, we will discuss areas such as color lightness, color saturation, and color hue.
Color Lightness: Tints, Tones, & Shades
One of the most obvious ways that colors are contrasted is in their relative lightness or darkness. These variations are identified with the terms: tint, tone, and shade.
A color tint is created when white is added to a color. In other words, tints are lighter (whiter) than the original color. For example, this Vito Selma lounge chair pad is a brown tint.
A color tone is created when grey is added to a color. The tones of this bathroom color scheme are decidedly greyer than the true colors themselves.
A color shade is created when black is added to a color. So the darker (blacker) version of a certain color is called a shade, like how this “out” DeCastelli table relates to the “in”-legged version.
Color Saturation: Vibrant vs. Muted
Colors are also identified and contrasted for design purposes based upon their relative saturation, or, in other words, how vibrant and intense the color is (or, conversely, how muted and dull it appears). Essentially, a color’s saturation measures how different it is from pure grey. For example, the exterior wood on this Khouri Guzman Holyfield side table has a low saturation (it is relatively close to grey), while the inside persimmon provides a beautiful and unexpected contrast in saturation.
The combination of complementary colors, when used at full saturation levels, tends to be particularly vibrant. While in small doses for a “pop” here or there, this can work to your advantage. However, complementary colors in particular must be managed well (and generally not in large doses) so as to avoid being overbearing or obnoxious.
The hue of a color is practically synonymous with the color itself. For example, common hues are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple – you will recognize these as the primary and secondary colors from the color wheel discussion. What creates a different color, or hue, is simply the difference of wavelength in the light spectrum.
This knowledge about hues comes in handy when determining how colors will work in your space, because a color itself can behave differently when surrounded by other hues.
With cool blues in the background, this modern red sofa appears to be a cool shade of red as well (meaning, more bluish than yellowish). Imagine this same chair in a setting with plenty of orange and yellow around it, and it would read as a much warmer hue.
Color theory really gets fun when multiple pairings are happening at one time, such as in this Design Heure collection. Analogous colors are showcased (purple and pink), and a bit of complementary color pairing is used as well (gold and purple). The result is a dynamic, yet intentional and stable, color collection.
Well, there you have it. Color Theory 101 is complete. What is your favorite color theory tidbit? Favorite color combinations? Least favorite? Do you stick with “the rules” or would you rather try to break them?