A Color Theory Cheatsheet for When You (Re-)Decorate Your Home

James Barrett
·6 mins read
Photo credit: markOfshell - Getty Images
Photo credit: markOfshell - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

Yeah, so we're all spending waaay more time in our homes than ever right now (because, you know, *a pandemic* is happening!!! wear! your! mask!), and that means that there’s no better time to decorate (or redecorate) your home. Plus, you could use a hobby, admit it. The whole home décor thing is about a lot more than just furniture and framing your favorite Instagram photos—I'm talking color here, ppl! Think about it: when you see an ad, or how a restaurant or shop, is decorated, those color choices aren’t random. Different shades and tones can evoke emotion and set different moods. Yep, it's called color theory.

So I spoke with potter and designer Jonathan Adler and Barb Whalen, Ford's color and materials design manager, to discuss easy ways to apply color theory to any room in your home. Welcome to my comprehensive cheat sheet on color theory when decorating your home.

First things first: There are 3 types of colors.

Yep, the most important lesson in this Color Theory 101 crash course = the most basic. There are three different types of colors: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary colors: red, blue, yellow. Secondary colors: green, orange, purple. Tertiary colors (the six shades mixing primary and secondary): yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green. You can find these 12 colors on a traditional color wheel. You're basically a color theory pro now.

Photo credit: MirageC - Getty Images
Photo credit: MirageC - Getty Images

Next, using white isn’t lazy—it's actually genius.

We often think white walls means that you’re too lazy to paint your room, or like me, you’re overwhelmed with so many color options you end up not painting it at all. This, my friends, is a myth because white is actually a pretty powerful choice of color for a wall. Adler tells me:

“If you wanna play it safe, white always works and a white room doesn’t mean you’ve given up. It’s a way to create a feeling of light and space.”

Photo credit: Jonathan Adler
Photo credit: Jonathan Adler

Plus, it's v, v cool rn, TYVM. “Whites and Neutral tones are currently on trend with both interior design and vehicles," Whalen says. "Have you noticed many new home exteriors are now painted white with bold graphic details? Plus, white has been the most popular vehicle color, globally for a few years.” For years, ppl!

Okay, now for some ~visualization.~

Get ready for some sound advice that you should revisit anytime you’re decorating your favorite room: “I usually go for a more neutral wall color as a backdrop for the furniture. Think of the walls as the frame and the furnishings as the picture,” Adler says. Hi, I srsly can’t unsee that metaphor...it’s so good! Remember, not everything in the room can be the shining star. With this approach, your furniture becomes the focal point and other aspects such as the wall and lighting are simply supporting characters.

Remember: Complementary colors are better together.

Complementary colors = two hues literally on opposite sides of the wheel. Not that you need that wheel: these shades go so well together you usually don’t even one to find 'em. Blue’s complementary color is orange, red’s is green, and yellow’s is purple. When these colors come together, they become so much stronger than if they were standalone. I’m not saying paint one wall red and the other green (unless you really love Christmas, in which case do you) but think about ways to use accents such as pillows and furniture to compliment the surrounding area.

Photo credit: Wachirawut Priamphimai / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Wachirawut Priamphimai / EyeEm - Getty Images

Lighting and hues of color change everything.

Picking a color is the first step—it’s important to see it in the environment. How does it look with light reflected on it? Do the colors of the furniture clash or enhance it? Whalen, who studied interior design and whose love for cars landed her in automotive design, shares:

“When selecting a paint color for a room, it is critical to evaluate each color in the room at different times of the day. The natural light shining in the morning will make a color look different than it will at noon or at sunset. A color can also look different with certain interior light sources as well.”

Hot tip (get it??): Cool colors are soothing, while warm colors are energizing.

Calming and soothing feelings define cool colors such as blue, green and purple. In fine art, cool colors make things look farther away. Warm colors are defined by orange, red, and yellow. Warm colors in fine art look closer in the foreground. Think of cool colors as the sky, and warm colors as the beaming sun.

Photo credit: zf L - Getty Images
Photo credit: zf L - Getty Images

Pick your colors based on the purpose of the room.

What’s the purpose of your room? A bedroom, a place to relax and recharge, should be soothing and calming. Active colors are brighter tones, which stimulate the mind and body, evoking energy and creativity. Passive colors, neutral and muted pastel tones, have a calming effect and can even increase mental focus. Form follows function with everything in the room, starting with the color.

The accent color should *accent* and never dominate.

“You cannot go wrong with black and white and one accent color, any accent color,” Adler says. Accent colors are what will make or break a room. The easiest way to apply accents to a room is through furnishings and home decor. If you’re feeling ~adventurous~, try painting a single wall in the room a bright color that contrasts with the adjacent neutral-toned walls.

Photo credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz - Getty Images
Photo credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz - Getty Images

Ultimately, the colors you use should speak to your personal style.

Selecting a color is like making a personal statement about you. “Each color reflects your personality. Choose what fits your personality, or who you want to be,” Whalen says:

“Every color ignites emotion; painting a room with neutral warm tones provides a calming emotion or sense of luxuriousness. Different intensities of the same hues can stir different emotions. For example, a bright bold blue can create a strong sense of energy, while in contrast, a dark rich blue can create a sense of peaceful tranquility. This approach is the same for a vehicle and the emotions it will evoke while you drive, and something that customers should keep in mind when making a color-related decision."

Your home is your sanctuary, so make it a place that you wouldn’t mind getting quarantined in because, ummm, social distancing is still very much a thing.

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