Color Theory 101: How to Use These Ideas in Interior Design

Color theory is a set of ideas surrounding color that provide guidance for choosing and mixing colors in a harmonious way to produce a certain visual effect. Using tools like those developed from color theory is one of the most effective ways to choose colors for your home palette.

In many ways, colors are an abstract and subjective concept. Color theory is a practical attempt to quantify colors in a way that creates workable models for practitioners of the visual arts, like graphic designers, artists, and interior decorators.

Development of Color Theory

Development of Color Theory

Humans have always been fascinated by color. Historians have documented ideas surrounding the use and mixing of color in ancient writings from Aristotle and Ptolemy. A more systematic approach to thinking about color developed during the Renaissance with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo. These men thought carefully about their use of color and the effect that color has on human emotion.

Color theory took a huge step forward with the work of Sir Isaac Newton. He studied the separation of light into the visible color spectrum. Using the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, he created the first color wheel. Based on Newton’s further experiments with light, he noticed that red, blue, and yellow mixed together created white light. He designated these as primary colors from which you could create all other colors. This idea is not strictly accurate, but it has guided the way that color theory has developed for visual artists.

Other color models have emerged over time as science has helped us understand how we visualize color. German and English scientists of the 19th century proposed new primary colors based on human’s visual perception of color. Using this standard, red, green, and blue are better primary colors. Modern printing and digital media use this model along with the more recently developed model using cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY) as primary colors. Even though these later color models can produce a wider range of colors, traditional color theory is still based on Newton’s first primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.

Color Wheel

The color wheel, as first created by Newton, is a visual representation of color hues present in the visible spectrum of light. A color wheel is a tool that helps you see the relationship between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. There are twelve colors on a traditional color wheel; three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors.

  • Primary Colors – Decorative artists like painters and interior designers consider red, blue, and yellow the primary colors. These are the basis from which they derive all the other colors.
  • Secondary Colors – Artists create the secondary colors of orange, purple, and green by mixing two primary colors: red and blue to create purple, blue and yellow to create green, and yellow and red to create orange.
  • Tertiary Colors – You can create tertiary colors by mixing a primary with a secondary color. For example, if you mix blue with green, you create blue-green.

Color Temperature

The designation of colors as either “warm” or “cool” became an important part of color theory in the 18th century. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colors, published in 1810, he divided colors into warm and cool based on those colors he associated with heat (red, orange, and yellow) and those he associated with coolness (green, blue, and violet).

The designation of temperatures for colors remains an important part of color design today. We think of warm hues as more active. Red, orange, and yellow are symbols of energy, power, and creativity. Even scientific studies have measured how these colors energize and activate us. Color theorists call warm colors “advancing” because they appear more active in design.

Cool colors like blue, green, and purple promote calmness and serenity. Color practitioners call these colors “receding.” We use these colors to create a relaxing atmosphere that quiets our mind and spirit.

Creating Color Harmony with the Color Wheel

The color wheel is the most important tool that interior designers use to develop color harmony within a given space. Color harmony is a way to create a positive human response to a design.

While human responses are complicated and based on culture, age, taste, and mood, the color harmony ideals aim to pair colors that balance each other and create pleasant juxtapositions that appeal to a wide range of people. Some common ways that designers pair colors are based on complementary, analogous, triadic, and monochromatic color schemes.

Complementary Color Schemes

Complementary color schemes pair colors that are across from each other on the color wheel. These include blue with orange, red with green, and yellow with purple. Color theorists believe that this combination is one of the most dynamic but also balanced as it pairs contrasting colors but a warm hue with a cool hue.

Analogous Color Schemes

Analogous colors are located next to one another on the color wheel. An analogous color scheme might have a similar primary, secondary and tertiary color included. One analogous color scheme may include red, orange, and red-orange. This type of color scheme is easy to create and is good for heightening a certain emotion. Using an analogous color palette based on blue will generate an overall calming effect.

Triadic Color Schemes

Triadic color schemes pair three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. These include blue, yellow, and red, or orange, purple, and yellow. These schemes are balanced but also bold.

Monochromatic Color Schemes

Monochromatic color schemes use one hue of varying shades. One example of a monochromatic color scheme would be various shades of red, including burgundy, poppy, and blush. With a monochromatic scheme, it works well to incorporate layers of textures to enhance the depth of the design.

Descriptive Terms in Color Theory

Designers use descriptive language to describe color in all its variety. Here are some of the most common terms they use to describe the qualities of particular colors.

  • Hue – The hue is the formal name of a color family. These have a specific location on the color wheel and include red, orange, yellow, green, and violet.
  • Chroma – The chroma of a color refers to its intensity. We sometimes refer to this as “colorfulness” or color saturation. Colors with a high chroma are intense and pure. Colors with a low chroma are muted or grayed with neutrals.
  • Value – We use the word value to describe the lightness or brightness of a color in contrast to its darkness. Color theory represents a color value on a scale from white to black, with white having the lightest value and black having the darkest value.

How Do Neutrals Work in Color Theory?

Color theories consider neutrals like black, white, and gray to be achromatic or grayscale colors. These colors do not have a hue and are not a part of the 12 color wheel. You can produce colors of varying shades, tints, and tones by mixing colored hues with neutrals. Neutrals are useful in dampening the intensity of pure color. Artists create muted tones by mixing pure colors with neutrals. Interior designs calm a colorful space with the addition of light and dark neutrals.

  • Shades – Artists produce varying shades of a color by mixing it with different amounts of black.
  • Tints – A tint is a combination of any pure color with varying amounts of white.
  • Tones – You can produce a specific tone by mixing a pure color with gray or with a combination of black and white.

Tips for Using Color Theory in Interior Design

Interior designers understand how to use color theory effectively to create a cohesive color idea for your home. Here are some ideas to help you consider how you can put these theories into practice.

Consider Your Space

It is important to first consider the room or area that you want to decorate. Think about the mood that you want to create as well as the amount of light the room receives, the climate of your area, the activities that take place in the area, and your own preferences. Considering these ideas will help focus your design goals.

Envision thinking about your bedroom. You may want to create a restful mood, so you would consider calming colors like blue or green. Determine the natural and artificial light sources in your bedroom. Consider using a light shade of blue or green if your room doesn’t have many windows and you want to keep the room light and bright. Last, think about your own personal preferences. When considering blue or green, think about which color you like the most for your personal space.

Creating a Color Scheme

Craft a color scheme based on the color wheel using the foundational color that you decide for each space. Think about either one or two accent colors to support your foundation color. For a blue room, consider a complementary shade of orange if you want to add some excitement to your space. Or, consider an analogous color like green if you want to enhance the soothing qualities of the room.

Whatever colors you decide, one easy way to implement a three color scheme is by using the 60-30-10 rule. This means that you should feature the dominant color in 60% of the room’s color, a secondary color in 30%, and another supporting color in 10%.

Make sure that your rooms flow with one another. It is best to create an overall color scheme for your whole home before you begin. But even if you don’t do this, make sure that each subsequent room that you design works with your other spaces. This is especially important if you have an open floor plan or if your rooms are visible to each other.

Experiment With Texture and Pattern

Whatever color scheme you choose, you can create varied interest by layering patterns and textures. This variety creates a depth that is important in professional quality interior design. Layering techniques include using various textures of fabrics on your upholstery, curtains, and throw pillows. Rugs are helpful in defining your space, and you can add new textures like seagrass or wool to your design. Add new patterns and colors to your space with fun wallpaper designs or floor tiles.

Create a Focal Point

It is helpful when designing a room, to begin with a focal point. A focal point is a way to provide a visual anchor in the room. Focal points also provide a sense of balance and a hierarchy that determines the structure of the room. This might be a focal wall, a foundational piece of furniture like a sofa or headboard, the view outside a window, or a large piece of wall art. Use the focal point to emphasize the color idea of the room and allow the other room elements to support it.