color wheel made from fabricBy Jennifer

Like arguments, decorating schemes can be inductive or deductive: that is, you can follow a concrete example to a general principle or vice versa.  In other words, you can pick a color you like and find others that work with it, or you can pick a concept or palette and rotate colors through it until one set pleases you.  Either way, color theory can help you to create and eliminate possibilities.

What follows is a brief introduction to color theory.  For painters and designers, color is a lifetime study, but for our purposes, a couple of quick definitions will give you a start.

Cool blue on cool green.

First, it’s important to distinguish warm from cool colors.  Female readers who have had foundation matched to their skin will probably recognize this distinction.  For everyone else, just remember that the following primary, secondary and tertiary colors are considered warm: red-purple, red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, and yellow.  All other colors — yellow-green through purple — are cool.  This distinction is important because warm colors advance and cool ones recede.  That is, in a color scheme that balances equal amounts of warm and cool, warm will appear to predominate.  Mood can follow color temperature, too: cool colors are conventionally calming and warm ones, energizing.

Cool on warm orange.

The color wheel also allows you to derive basic color schemes — analogous, complimentary, triadic and tetradic — with little effort.  Of the four types discussed here, analogous schemes are the easiest to use and provide consistent, if simple, results.  They consist of any three or four adjacent colors on the color wheel: for example, blue, blue-green, green, and yellow-green.  In our living room you will find two blue walls (a mid-blue and a blue-black), a forest green chair, and a predominantly green print framed in a brilliant lime.
Your results with an analogous scheme will be consistent, but they may lack excitement and drama.  A complimentary color scheme offers drama, and feels more sophisticated precisely because it carries the risk of failure.  When you’re mixing blues and greens, undertones can be selected with less precision, while poorly chosen accents can render a complimentary scheme — one combining red and green, yellow and purple, or orange and blue — unpleasantly jarring.

Warm yellow on cool blue.

I’ve always shunned complimentaries because for me the words “red and green” conjure two deep Christmassy colors, and “yellow and purple” seemed like the essence of bad taste.  I probably derived this notion from a legitimate observation: it’s almost never a good idea to dress yourself in a color that compliments your skin.  My distinctly sallow, pale skin looks uncannily greenish when I dye may hair a purplish black — Lord knows why I felt compelled to discover that through the experimental method — and I’ve launched a vigorous, not to say “tactless,” campaign to prevent Ken from wearing green, which produces unpleasant results with his ruddy complexion.

Orange and warm red.

Design is different, however: green paint can be lovely with pink soft furnishings, and pink is nothing more than a tint of red.  To give another example, our guest bathroom combines a medium blueish purple, lavender, and light, clear yellow.  If you’re feeling cautious about using complimentary colors together, take a look at any painting you love: it will likely contain complimentary shades for contrast.  Nature provides examples, too, ranging from the yellow streaks in an iris to a rose and its greenery.  In the bathroom, then, I cue visitors with a print of Van Gogh’s Irises, and, at times, a single cut iris in a bud vase on the pedestal sink.

At least one triadic scheme — red, blue and yellow — will be familiar.  The combination of green, purple and orange is less frequently used, and red-orange, blue-purple and yellow-green seems to me difficult to define and execute with precision.  Together our living room and entryway form two parts of a triadic scheme: a deep red matched with mid-blue.

Our clever use of a tetradic color scheme.

Tetradic schemes, which consist of two sets of complimentary colors, are perhaps the most difficult to pull off.  A designer who balances purple, yellow, blue and orange in a pleasing way would have to be on the top of her game.  I did find one simple example in our home, again in the guest bathroom: this week’s flower, an orange tulip, in a blue-patterned vase against the lavender wall, with a yellow contrast wall and a yellow hand towel nearby.  The solemn warning “Don’t try this at home” apparently doesn’t apply.

With a little practice — if you’re as geeky as I am, and are prone to practice these sorts of things — you can quickly get in the habit of identifying color schemes and remembering the complimentary shade of any given color.  When you’ve found that perfect red, or green, or yellow, you can quickly limit your choices for secondary wall colors.

Posts in This Series

  1. Choosing Your Wall Colors I: Pleasure and Pain
  2. Choosing Your Wall Colors II: Editing Your Good and Bad Ideas
  3. Choosing Your Wall Colors III: Color Theory for Amateur Designers