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Color in Interior Design

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

At a park near my home, I took a seat in the shade of a tall oak tree, with a thermos filled with my favorite latte in hand. With small enjoyable sips of latte, I embraced the moment, and begin to observe the colors around me. A red cardinal gracefully landed on a sturdy brown tree branch, as red, orange, and yellow leaves slowly fell to the ground. A beautiful clear sky, vividly blue, served as a backdrop. Over to my right, a few mallard ducks with green heads and yellow peaks glided seamlessly on the olive-green lake. To the left, a gorgeous blue butterfly hovered over a bed of purple pansies. I was mesmerized by the remarkable scenery and organic harmonization of colors. I found myself pondering how this organic harmonization of colors in nature could translate into interior design. What exactly is color? What are color principles and how can we implement them in design? What effects does color have on our mood?

Continue reading for the answers I found from my research.

What is Color?

Color is wavelengths produced by light. Light is composed of many colors that travel in a wave pattern, hence the name wavelength. We see light waves as the colors of the rainbow. This theory was discovered by Issac Newton, a well-known Engish scholar in the 1700s. He conducted an experiment where he reflected light through a prism, separating the light into its different colors, the seven colors of the rainbow, red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, indigo, and violet. This proved his theory, color originates from light.

Our eyes perceive color in terms of light because color relies on light to be revealed. The wavelength of light determines the color an object appears. When light hits the surface of a particular item it reflects one of the wavelengths found in light. The color of the wavelength depends on the range, in other words how long or short the wavelength is. Light with the longest wavelength appears red and light with the shortest wavelength appears blue. In between red and blue are all the other colors of light with their varying wavelengths.

Interior Design Color Principles

Color wheel

Selecting colors for a design can be intimidating, especially in an era where there’s a plethora of color shades to choose from. Basic knowledge of color concepts will help you tastefully and confidently develop color combinations that create harmony and balance. Let’s begin with the color wheel.

Issac Newton also invented the color wheel through his experiment with light and prisms. He laid the rainbow colors he found in the prism into a circle according to their wavelength, which created the first color wheel; warm colors on one side of the color wheel and cool colors on the other side. Warm colors are red, orange, and yellow, while cool colors are green, blue, indigo, and violet.

The Vibrant Color Wheels Designed by Goethe, Newton & Other Theorists of Color (1665-1810)

Later renditions of the color wheel included not only the colors of the rainbow but primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Primary colors are natural colors, colors that can not be created by mixing other colors, like red, blue, and yellow. When you mix primary colors you get orange, green, and purple. Red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green, and red and blue make purple. When you mix primary colors with secondary colors you get tertiary colors; Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, and Red-Violet.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are colors found opposite one another on the color wheel. The basic complementary colors found on the RYB ( red, yellow, blue) color wheel are red and green, yellow and purple, and orange and blue. The use of complementary colors in a design creates vibrant and energetic charm. The opposing colors enhance the intensity of each other. When you mix a pair of complementary colors you create a neutral color on the brown or grayscale. The neutral color created can be used to anchor the complementary colors in a design.

Shop the Look! This design was created by eDesigns by Vee. This is a great example of a complementary color scheme. Purple accessories such as throw pillows, artwork, and curtains, accentuate a sleek mustard-yellow sofa. Neutral colors found in the coffee table and rugs create balance and harmony among the complementary colors.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are hues that lay next to each other on the color wheel. For example red, red-orange, and orange. The similar shades combined create a harmonious vibe. For example, the colors of tree leaves in the fall are analogous colors.

Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic colors is a color scheme that uses different shades of one hue. A color is selected and then lightened or darkened to create variations of that color. For instance, navy blue, denim, and sky blue. You can select a warm color, a cool color, or light and dark shades to suit your design. Layering the same color by varying the saturation creates bold and dramatic energy. It can also help a busy design look cleaner and more organized.

Shop the Look! This design was created by eDesigns by Vee. Variations of the color blue create a monochromatic color scheme. Textures and patterns enhance the different shades and create visual interest.

Neutral Colors

Neutral colors are created when primary hues or complementary colors are mixed together. Examples of neutral colors are beige, ivory, taupe, black, gray, and shades of white. These colors are not found on the color wheel since they are muted shades that lack color. Neutral colors complement the colors on the color wheel as they do not compete; they create balance.

When using neutrals mix different tones, shades, textures, and patterns to elevate the design and create visual interest. Using brighter neutrals gives a space an open, clean, and airy look. Darker neutrals give a space a cozier vibe.

60-30-10 Rule

Many designers use the 60-30-10 rule to create balanced color schemes in their designs. The rule advises that 60% of a room should be the dominant color, 30% should be the secondary color and 10% should be the accent color. For example, the 60% dominant color can be used on walls, area rugs, or large furniture. The 30% secondary color can be used in accent chairs, window treatments, bedding, and rugs. The 10% accent color in throw pillows, art, and accessories.