Color Theory & Interior Design

Instructor: Morgan Donohue

Morgan has taught interior design, LEED certification, and Literature. She has a Bachelors degree in Interior Design and a Master's degree in English and Creative Writing.

Color theory is the examination of how color can affect how a person reacts to the colors they see. In interior design, this can be used to create a space that has a distinct look, evokes a desired mood, or encompasses a particular style.

Color and Experience

Have you ever walked into a room and just recoiled at the gaudy decorations and color schemes? Maybe it was filled with black and white stripes, and was just too 'loud' and unsettling. Then again, another room decorated simply with cool colors made you feel comfortable and at ease.

When you walk into any space, the way your eye translates color and color combinations can affect how you interpret the style, mood, and overall comfort level. For many designers, there is a thoughtful and precise effort made through color choices to create a desired effect.

Imagine you are redesigning a master bedroom. To update the furniture, lighting, and carpet, you start to understand that you want the room to have a certain feel or mood to it.

Maybe you decide that the floral pink and yellow scheme will be replaced by a cool and calm look that evokes a perfect place to sleep. While this sounds like a vague idea that is left up to interpretation and opinion, interior designers use color theory as a foundation to achieve their design goals.

What Is Color Theory?

A color wheel used in color theory
color wheel

Color theory is the science behind how we interpret the colors we see in the world, and how we respond to specific color combinations and proportions. More often than not, color theory starts at the color wheel, a sort of road map for understanding color combinations and how the human brain processes these combinations.

The first color wheel is attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, and has been used and developed by artists and scientists to define how we interact with color. Artists learn color theory to create a foundation for their paintings or drawings, and interior designers use it as a framework for their color schemes and room designs.

Color Combinations

This color wheel illustrates primary, secondary, and tertiary colors
Color Wheel

There are a variety of color combinations that are created and used across many creative fields. To understand how a color wheel is utilized, you can examine the various color combinations that are found on the wheel, and the types of colors that it includes.

Primary colors are viewed as the three colors that cannot be created by mixing two other colors together. They are the building blocks of all other colors on the wheel. For painting and most artistic uses, these are the colors red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary colors are the ones that can be created by mixing two primary colors. These colors are orange, green, and purple.

Tertiary colors are often explained in two different ways. Some say that a tertiary color is created by mixing one secondary color with one primary color, and others say that a tertiary color is two primary colors mixed at a 2:1 ratio. Tertiary colors are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.

Complementary colors are the two hues across from one another on the color wheel, like red and green, blue and orange or purple and yellow. When mixed with each other, they will effectively cancel one another out, creating a muddy brown or black hue.

If you are looking for an easy way to see how the human eye interprets color, you can do a test with two complementary colors. When placed next to one another, these colors will often create a visual effect where the colors meet.

Illustration of three analogous colors

Analogous colors come from the pairing of three colors that sit alongside one another on the color wheel. Red-violet, violet, and blue-violet is one example.

Triadic color combinations are created by choosing three colors equally apart from one another on the color wheel.

Monochromatic Colors

A monochromatic color scheme is created when you use a single color and add white, black, or gray to it to create various hues. This brings up the point of tints, tones, and shades.

  • A tint is where white is added to a particular hue, and new colors are created by increasing the percentage of white to that hue.
  • A shade is a similar process, but by adding black rather than white, the hue becomes darker with the percentage of black that is added.
  • A tone is where gray (or both black and white) are added to a color. An entire color palette can be created through the full saturation of a hue along with various tints, shades, and tones.

Monochromatic color palette with tints and shades
moncrhromatic colors

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