There’s little doubt that color is a powerful decorating tool. It works at an architectural level to define and link spaces and highlight the interesting details of your home. It tricks the eyes and the mind, making spaces appear either open and airy, or cozy and intimate. Color also works on an emotive level, creating mood and atmosphere. It can be sophisticated, uplifting, somber or vibrant. Creating a color palette for your home, then, is often a highly personal task.
Decorating with color is all about intuition, imagination and some knowledge of color theory, the experts say. Here, Wendy Rennie, color consultant with Haymes Paint; Lisa Burdus, an interior designer; and Judith Briggs, principal of Colour Consultants Australia, talk practical strategies and ideas for building a color palette you’ll love to live with.
Finding a Starting Point
The color palette is not just about paint, it includes the colors of the floor, furniture and fabrics, window coverings, wallpaper and accessories. The first step in putting together a color palette is to look at the base elements of the room that can’t be altered. “The first question we ask when we’re working with clients is what’s staying and what’s going,” Rennie says. “We’ve got to factor that into the overall scheme.”
This includes the color of the flooring, window frames, fireplace surrounds, exposed brickwork and any other permanent fixtures. If they’re part of the room, they’ll need to tie in with your new color scheme.
In this formal sitting room, the color scheme radiates outward from the beautiful charcoal-colored mantelpiece.
Next, think about the decorative pieces that will be taking center stage in the room: artworks, patterned fabrics, decorative rugs, collections of objects from your travels — all the items that you love looking at every day. You can draw inspiration for color and mood from these items.
“Wall color is a backdrop to everything else that’s going on, whether it’s the furniture, the art, the view, the feel,” Burdus says. “These are the focal points. It’s all about what you want people to see when they walk in the door. You want your paint colors to accentuate all the other items that you have.”
Briggs agrees: “An artwork, for example, will have its own color palette,” she says. “Pick out three or four colors and use those as the basis for your scheme. That will then make the artwork stand out because the room is reflecting part of that artwork.”
This living room illustrates the concept well — note how the wall, cushions and accessories pick up on the blues and oranges used in the painting. The overall effect is harmonious and puts the spotlight on the painting.
Tip: Color inspiration can come from outside the home as well. Here are some places to look:
- Nature — your view, the countryside, a spring garden in bloom, the sky, the coast.
- The seasons — think lush greens for spring, russet golds for autumn.
- Your travels — for example, terra cottas and yellows of Italianate villas, crisp whites and blues of the Greek islands, tropical brights of the Pacific islands.
- Picture galleries on Houzz and in interiors magazines.
- Paint charts — color experts at the major paint companies group each season’s newest shades into palettes. These can be an invaluable resource.
Combining Colors Successfully
When pulling a color palette together, a basic understanding of color theory can help. On one side of the color wheel we find warm colors: yellows, oranges and reds. Opposite are the blue-based cool colors, which include blue, purple and blue-greens.
To create a harmoniously coordinated palette, choose colors that sit beside each other on the color wheel, such as the rich red, orange and yellow that feature in this sitting room.
If you’re more adventurous and want to add vibrancy with bursts of color, choose a complementary scheme: Pick colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors will look dramatic and lively, without clashing.
Tip: Warm colors tend to make small rooms appear smaller. Cool colors appear to recede and will make a room look larger.
The Importance of Undertones
Once you’ve selected the bolder colors you’d like to use in your home, anchor them together with neutrals that have a subtle undertone of the same color and color temperature. “That’s the key to linking all colors, to make sure that the undertone of one works with the undertone of the other one,” Briggs says.
Tip: Not sure how to identify the undertone? “The only way you can properly discover a neutral’s undertone is by comparing it with the purest version of the same type of neutral,” Briggs says. “So if it’s a white, compare it to a paint such as Dulux Vivid White. It helps to look at the color outside, as sunlight will usually reveal the undertone.”
How Many Colors Can You Use in a Palette?
While there’s no magic number or formula for creating the ideal color palette, Briggs says three to five colors will produce a good result. “But that’s not to say you don’t use different tones of the same color as well,” she says. “The more tones you have of the same color, the more interesting the whole color scheme becomes.”
Rennie says that it’s not always about the number of colors used, but the way they’re all tied together. This living room features nine colors from Haymes Paint’s Strata palette. Can you spot them all? They’re all tonally similar, which means that when brought together they build depth and interest without looking overtly colorful.
Get the Right Proportions
When it comes to making color work, the division of labor is important. “You need different proportions of each color to make it interesting,” Briggs says. “It’s like the golden mean, which is sort of the 60-40 [ratio] in nature. That is always a good guideline.
“You have one main color, which is usually your neutral, and this is applied to 60 percent of the space. Then you do another 20 percent in a contrasting or complementary color, and then break it down to make up the different proportions, roughly 10 percent each in accents.”
Creating a Sense of Flow
So what if you’d like to use different colors in different rooms? There are no rules to say it can’t be done, but there are “right” ways to do it. Burdus suggests painting all the public areas of the house — the entryway, hallways, kitchen and family room — the same color, and then introducing different colors in the bedrooms.
Briggs says that this is most easily achieved in older houses, which, thanks to their high-ceilinged rooms and generous architectural detailing, can take a diverse color palette without looking fragmentary. “But you do need to link it together with the trim color,” she says. “Choose something that works with all the colors that you’re going to use, and follow that through on all the [baseboards], doors and window frames.”
Another way to use different colors in different rooms without creating a jarring effect is to choose colors of the same saturation levels. Rennie says Haymes Paint’s Blended Neutrals palette, which is a selection of neutrals in which the undertones are highlighted, was developed with this concept in mind. “These colors can be scattered through the house, and every room can look quite different, but because they’re all similar in saturation, they feel alike.”
Using multiple shades of a single color is perhaps the most sophisticated way to manipulate the mood and personality of different rooms while maintaining an elegant, cohesive feel through the home.
“Because we’re now so used to open plan, and our living areas are often really big spaces, we’ve lost some of the intimacy we used to have,” Rennie says. “So it’s often a good idea to use darker and lighter variations of a color to define and identify spaces according to the way they’re used.
“For example, you might want to make the living room feel cozier than the open-plan kitchen and dining. So you’d use a darker version of your wall color to create a more intimate feel.” This strategy has been put to use in this inner-city Perth, Australia, home. The kitchen is light, bright and airy with pale gray walls, while a deeper shade features on the living room walls.
3 Fail-Safe Color Palettes
It’s not easy to suggest color palettes that will suit every home. There are so many variables at play — the style of your home, its location, your lifestyle and personal preferences. However, if you’re stuck for inspiration, these suggestions from Rennie are a good starting point.
Black and white. She says this classic color combination works well both externally and internally. It’s bold and graphic yet minimalistic, and its inherent simplicity means it’s hard to get wrong. The white base-black accent pictured here is sharp and sophisticated. For an edgier, more contemporary feel, play around with the proportions; dress a wall or two in black and pick out the architectural details in white.
Monochromatic gray. This color scheme, built from different strengths of the same shade of gray, is also a great fail-safe option, Rennie says. It’s timeless and sophisticated, and it can be adapted to suit most spaces. Take it down to near-white and all the way up to charcoal.
Gray is a versatile and diverse color, and because it can feature either warm or cool undertones, it can be coordinated to the color of your floors and other existing architectural features.
Bold naturals. “This is a harmonious approach, where the colors are all related, although they feel quite different,” Rennie says. Combine colors inspired by nature — deep buff and warm brown, forest greens, steely gray-blue. Make it work by using one shade for the walls and introducing the other colors on furniture and accessories.