Colour Theory for Interior Design - How to Use a Colour Wheel to Choose your Colour Schemes

Summary: Learn about colour theory and how it can be applied to interior design. Find out about the colour wheel, how colours can set a mood and what colours to choose for the look you are going for. In this DIY guide we take a look at primary colours, secondary colours, tertiary colours, complementary and analogous colours and how colours can affect moods. Also find out about warm colours and cool colours and what the best way is to pick a colour or theme when redecorating a room.

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Choosing a look or style for a room in your home, whether you're redecorating an old room or starting from scratch, can be a daunting and overwhelming decision. There's so much choice out there and you need to create a place that works for you and your family. This is where colour theory comes in.

DIY Doctor has taken the time to talk about some of the finer aspects of interior design, and how you can use colour theory to help you get started.

Colour wheel for picking colours

Colour Wheel for use in picking colours for interior design

Colour choice is probably the most important decision you will make when decorating a room. It sets the mood and instantly impacts how you feel when you enter a room, whether you're aware of it or not.

A colour wheel is the best place to start as it shows all the main colours you will be working with. Lets break it down:

Primary Colours

Primary colours are our base colours and are made up of Red, Blue and Yellow. They sit at equal intervals on the colour wheel and are called “Primary” because the cannot be made by combining other colours.

Red, blue and yellow primary colours

Examples of primary colours

Secondary Colours

The secondary colours are Purple, Green and Orange and are created when two primary colours are mixed together. For example; Red and Yellow make Orange, Red and Blue make Purple, and so on.

The secondary colours are placed on the colour wheel in between each primary colour. So if you look at the colour wheel diagram, you will see that between yellow and blue you have green. If you got yellow paint and blue paint and mixed equal amounts together, you would get green paint.

Purple, green orange secondary colours

Examples of secondary colours

Tertiary Colours

A tertiary colour is what you get when you mix a primary colour with the secondary colour next to it on the colour wheel. Tertiary colours are named by the colours used to create them, but they have their own names depending on the hue. These are some examples:

  • Blue-Purple = Violet
  • Yellow-Green = Lime
  • Yellow-Orange = Amber
  • Red-Purple = Plum
  • Blue-Green = Turquoise
  • Red-Orange = Rust
Plum, lime, violet and other tertiary colours

Examples of tertiary colours

Complementary Colours

If you pick two colours which lie directly opposite one another on the colour wheel, these are called complementary or contrasting colours.

Most people assume that because they sit opposite each other that they would clash if used together, and this can be true depending on the shade of the colour and the amount you use them in. Use too much and it can become overpowering, but use them well and they complement each other and can be used to a great effect:

  • Red/Green
  • Blue/Orange
  • Yellow/Purple
Plum, lime, violet and other tertiary colours

Examples of complementary colours

Analogous Colours

A common trick in colour scheming is to pick one colour from the wheel, then use the colours on either side of it for accents - these are analogous colours.

For example, if you pick yellow for the main colour of a room, you might use shades of orange, or green, to add a bit of interest here and there to stop the main colour from overwhelming the room.

Example of analogous colours

Examples of analogous colours

Tints, Shades and Tones

If you look at a colour chart, it’s not just made up of primary, secondary and tertiary colours, There are various shades, tints and tones that make up all the other colours on the colour spectrum.

Basic colour chart including black and white

Rudimentary Colour Chart including Black and White

Tints are created by adding varying quantities of white to a hue to make it lighter or less intense - unsaturated. These are generally known as pastel colours depending on the amount of white added.

Shades are created by adding black to a hue to make it darker. On this end of the scale is where you have your Forrest Greens, your Navy Blues and your Mahoganies (which is a shade of brown - a hue created with red and orange).

Of course, when mixing colours yourself you have to be careful with the amount of black used as the black pigment is overpowering by nature. Black should be added sparingly or, if you are unsure, then alternatively you can mix a darker pigment of that colour with the original instead of black.

Tones are created when both white and black (grey) have been added. Depending on how much black and white (the shade of grey) is used with the original hue, the tone can be lighter or darker than what you started out with.

Tones will appear less saturated or intense than the initial pigment and be more subtle. They are more true to the way we see colour in the real world due to the diffusion of light.

Tints, shades and tones used with the main colours of the colour wheel can be a great colour scheme for any room. These pallets are similar to the analogous colour schemes but rather than go around the colour wheel, you move up and down the scale of a specific colour.

Tints and shades of green

Tints to Shades of Green

Neutral Colours

Neutral colours do not sit on the colour wheel, and are - for the most part - black, white and grey. However, it can be argued that brown and/or beige can be considered neutral as they are muted and subtle.

Grey scale

Grey scale from white to black

Pure white, or white light, holds every colour in the spectrum, whilst true black is the absence of all colours.

Warm and Cool Colours

If you were to halve the colour wheel from Yellow to Green, you would divide it into warm and cool colours.

Reds, oranges and yellows are all warm colours. Warm colours will advance in a room, and if used in excess can make the room appear smaller.

For instance, if you were to paint every wall in your room bright red then the room would feel imposing and claustrophobic, like the walls were closing in on you.

However, if you were to paint just one wall red - such as the wall with the fireplace in a living room - and painted the others white or a pale pastel red, then that would add warmth and interest to the room without being overbearing.

Large rooms are great for a warm colour scheme as it makes the room feel cosier - if that is the ambience you are going for. Lighter tints will always dilute the advancing effect of a warm colour, while darker shades will enhance it.

Example of warm colours

Example of warm colours

Purples, blues and greens are all cool colours, although they can be made warmer by using darker shades. Cool colours are receding, so you can use them to create an illusion of space in a room.

However, the same principle applies especially with darker shades. If you were to paint the entire room a dark blue or a solid purple the room would feel oppressive and confining. Use feature walls and lighter tints to break it up.

Example of cool colours

Example of cool colours

Colour Symbolism and How it Impacts our Moods

Colour can have a great impact on our moods due to the connotations we derive from them from both personal experience and media influence. Advertising and company branding all use colour symbolism to influence us without us even realising it.

The use of lots of colours is childish and busy, usually used for products aimed at children because the bright colours will capture their attention and stimulate their minds. Neutral colours are trendy and modern, they work with other colours and are a good base to work from.

Warm, bright colours like yellow and orange are energetic and powerful, whilst warm, dark colours like browns and dark reds are classic and traditional. They are rich and so signify luxury and elegance.

Cold, bright colours like pale blue and soft greens are calm, clean and fresh, whereas cold, dark colours like navy blue and pine green are stable and hard working - they offer confidence and ambition.

In hospitals, a lighter tint of green was used for the walls and some of the uniforms as it was thought to be a relaxing colour, however over time it became associated with sickness and so was changed to a calming blue and a sunny, happy yellow to encourage healing and positive feelings.

Red has long been known as the colour of passion, whether in anger or in desire, but toned down to a lighter pink it makes you think of romance, sweetness and innocence – a good example of how tones and shades can be used to scale a mood up or down.

Greens and blues are very calming colours - depending on the shade. Bright, garish colours like electric blue or vivid green are considered loud and brash, but shades closer to nature like a muted blue or a leafy green are peaceful and quiet. Pastel colours are also very calming as they are less saturated and intense.

Purples are linked with spirit and creativity - people such as mediums, psychics and spiritualists often wear purple as it enhances the mind and calms the spirit. Blue is also a spiritual colour and is associated with the soul - as is white.

Purple is also linked with luxury and royalty as it used to be a hard to find pigment so purple dyes and paints were rare and therefore expensive. Kings, Emperors and other forms of royalty would wear purple to signify their wealth and position of power.

Colour symbolism and effect on mood

Colour Symbolism - Predominantly in the West

However, cultural differences must be taken into account. In the East, specifically Asian countries, white is seen as a mourning colour and traditionally worn at funerals as it symbolises the purity of death and new life due to religious beliefs such as reincarnation. In India it is customary that brides wear red as it symbolises happiness, luck and celebration.

In China during the New Year and other celebrations families will gift each other with red envelopes containing money to bring luck and prosperity to the family.

In Britain and other western countries pink is seen as a delicate and feminine colour, whilst blue is bold and masculine. Originally however, pink was a male colour as it comes from red, and blue was dainty and feminine.

Choosing Colours

If you are completely redecorating a room, try to start with a blank canvas. Move all non-essential items and furniture out of the room to give you space to work in, and so not to damage your belongings - this project explains how to prepare a room for painting.

It is advisable put a coat of white emulsion on the walls first before any painting – if you are planning to change the colour of the walls this is a good idea anyway, as it will help dilute the colour that's underneath so that it doesn't show through the new paint and it gives you a fresh starting point.

Even if you are sticking to the same colour it is a good idea to paint it again so that it is crisp and clean. Here is a list of all the types of interior paint.

Once you have your blank room, you need to consider the furniture and items you can't or aren't willing to get rid of as these will be your highlights and points of interest in your colour scheme. White and black are always a good base as they work well with every other colour - especially if you're going for a modern and contemporary style.

If you have, for example, a collection of antique mahogany furniture you need to make sure you select a sympathetic colour scheme. For a warm, cosy feel lighter browns, reds and white is good to use with solid wood. If you're going for something more active, then blue, orange and cream can offer contrast.

Examples of mahogany colour schemes

Examples of mahogany colour schemes

Once you have a collection of items that are definitely going to live in the room, you can look at them and start to think about which colours will work well with them.

It's also a good idea to look at the furniture and items themselves. Does the sofa need to be re-upholstered? Do you need new cushions or accessories? You don't always need to buy them new - you can recycle some of your old things to make new things. This project on Decoupage will tell you how to re-vamp old furniture.

Consider swapping furniture, pictures and accessories from other rooms too. One tip for a modern looking room use to use neutral colours with a single, or two contrasting, accent colours such as red, or orange and blue. This will highlight points of interest around the room and tie everything together nicely.

If a large photo or painting is a feature of the room, you might pick out a colour from it to use. This is a good way to use an analogous colour scheme to give the room a specific feel or atmosphere, such as using green, yellow and white in a conservatory or reception room to make it feel open and happy.

Pallet and colour schemes for different rooms

Colour schemes and pallets for different rooms

You can also take inspiration from nature. For instance, a fresh start and bright colours invites a spring palette - greens and yellows. For intimate and soft mood an autumn palette of browns, reds and oranges.

Pallet and colour schemes for different rooms

Colour schemes and pallets for different rooms

Once you have your colour schemes and palettes it's only a matter of putting it all together. Take care to use bold colours sparingly so as not to overwhelm the room. You can use patterns and paint effects for colour schemes and also textures, including fabric wall coverings to add interest and diversity.

How about a creating a feature wall in your room, this can be painted - or it can also be wallpapered in your main chosen colour.

Or you can try and create a picture wall and use a combination of photos and prints, canvas' and frames in the palette you've chosen for atmosphere and thought. The possibilities are endless!

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