Color Theory

Color Theory for Home Decor

Before you dive into your next redecorating project, take a moment to review a little about color theory. Even just the basics about how colors blend or contrast and the effects that different combinations have will can help you avoid costly errors resulting in rooms that feel a little off and don’t achieve your desired effect.

Explore the Color Wheel

color wheel

The Primary Colorsblue, red and yellow. The visible light spectrum can be broken down into three predominant bands of color called Primary Colors: red, yellow and blue.


These colors cannot be made by any combination of colors, and all other colors are derived from these three. The Primary Colors are the basis of the color wheel — an invaluable tool for matching and contrasting colors first developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666.

Consider Color Relationships

Using the color wheel, look at colors that are side by side, such as blue and green. These are examples of Harmonious Colors. Combining harmonious colors creates an engaging visual experience that’s pleasing to the eye.

Complementary Colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel and include green/red, yellow/purple, and blue/orange combinations.

Nature provides us with many beautiful examples of complementary colors, such as a red strawberry topped by a green leaf and fall foliage against a blue sky. However, using two contrasting colors of equal value to decorate a room leads to a chaotic look. Unless you’re seeking a dramatic effect, it’s best to use a contrasting color in a lighter value or as an accent.

Secondary Colorsorange, green, and purple — are formed by mixing two Primary Colors. Tertiary Colors, blue-green for example, are the combination of one Primary Color and one Secondary Color.


Monochromatic Color

Monochromatic refers to different tints of the same color, varying in depth from dark to light. You may think of black and white as two different colors, but they are actually monochromatic because they are merely different values of gray. When designing a monochromatic color scheme, choose shades close together for a serene effect or combine a pale with a dark for a bold contrast.  Consider the difference in effect of a light gray sectional adorned with either pale gray pillows or ebony black accent pillows.

gray living room

Tints and shades

Tints refer to a pure color hue with white added while shades are color hues with black added. Tinting lightens the color and shade darkens the color.

navy blue
royal blue
sky blue

Evaluate Color Context

If you’ve ever chosen paint or fabric in a store, you know colors can change dramatically when you bring them home. Different light conditions change the appearance of colors and even the relationship between one color and another. Two colors that match under one light source but appear different under another are called a metameric match. It’s important to be aware of this phenomenon when selecting your color scheme. Always look at paint chips and fabric swatches together in the room where you want to use them, and during different times of the day to see the effect that changes from natural light to lamp lit rooms makes on your selections.

How you perceive color has to do with other colors that might surround it. Because your eye judges brightness by comparing the color with its surroundings, red surrounded by black or blue appears more brilliant than red with orange or white, for example. Different levels of value and chroma also affect the color. Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color and is achieved by adding white or black. A color’s value can also be referred to as brightness.

Chroma, on the other hand, has to do with the intensity or purity of a color. A color’s chroma is changed by adding any color except black and white. A color’s chroma can also be referred to as saturation. The terminology might be confusing, but being able to discuss color in the language that painters and interior decorators use can help ensure you get exactly what you want. Finding the right color for your bedroom, living room, or den is a deeply personal choice. Pay attention to color trends for new ideas and inspirations, but always consider a room’s exposure, lighting, purpose, and furnishings when choosing a hue. And don’t forget your color wheel – this pocket-sized “cheat sheet” is the best way to keep color theory from getting the best of you.

The Importance of Color Theory

“Research reveals all human beings make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment or item within 90 seconds of initial viewing and that between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on color alone,” reports Color Communications Inc., a leading provider of color standards to paint, automotive, textile, and other industries. Color not only affects how you’re perceived but also how you feel about yourself. Color choices are deeply personal and the feelings different colors give us are very real. Even in sleep, we’re attuned to the differences among colors, analysts say. Dreams with a lot of black reflect sadness or fear. Blue is believed to mean optimism, spirituality, and positive thoughts. Green is the dream color for money, jealousy, and even love, while red can mean passion or anger. Dreams colored in white can signify purity, cleanliness, and dignity in some cultures; in others, they can symbolize death. If we wake from our dreams feeling a little green, we can turn to Chromotherapy for a color-based method of treating emotional, mental, and spiritual states.

“Research reveals all human beings make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment or item within 90 seconds of initial viewing and that between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on color alone.”

This New Age healing art with ancient Egyptian and Chinese roots is based on the belief that our auras’ colors reflect our feelings, and when the colors are changed — using colored baths, lights, oils, and crystals — people are healed. In your home, the colors you use can enhance energy, soften a space, or even lend a feeling of wealth. For every decor and style, there are perfect color companions to express what you want to say. Whether you’re tickled pink with the idea of chromotherapy or go white as a ghost at the thought of black dreams, it cannot be denied that we project emotions and personalities on colors.

Against a dark background, yellow-orange appears brilliant. In contrast with red, however, the yellow-orange appears lifeless.

Finding your Balance

Understanding the nuances of complementary colors and color contrast can go a long way towards building a color palette that is both soothing and intriguing. Spend some time reflecting on the color combinations that attract your eye. Consider which combinations will build the look you are going for and be sure to evaluate your color choices in the room setting under different light sources. If your color scheme seems too “one-note,” add tints and shades of some of the existing colors for interest and variety without having to worry about colors clashing.