Not that we would want to get too technical here — after all, decorating should be fun, not weighed down with lots of rigid rules, facts and figures. However, it is handy to know and understand the psychology of colour and how combinations of different shades and tones can be brought together to create various visual effects, moods and even patterns.
The best place to start is the colour wheel. This is a universal device which has its origins in the different wavelengths of light which produce the six colours of the rainbow. The basic wheel is made up of the three primary colours of red, yellow and blue, and the three ‘pure’ secondary colours which are created by mixing together any two primaries (such that orange is a combination of red and yellow, green is created by mixing blue and yellow, and blue and red combine to create purple).
Many colour wheels will also include intermediate colours which are a combination of the primary colour and the secondary colour next to it. For example, the combination of red and its neighbouring secondary colour orange (which is the combination of the two primaries red and yellow) will create a rich red-orange, a basic intermediate colour.
The mixing of any two secondary colours, such as green and orange (to achieve citrine) or orange and purple (to achieve russet), creates what are called tertiary colours. These do not appear on the colour wheel, but are particularly important to the world of interior design.
By adding white and black to the colours of the wheel, tints (which are lighter versions of the colour due to the presence of white) and shades (which are darker versions due to the addition of black) are created. Black and white have no hue or pigments so do not figure on the colour wheel. Likewise, grey — the combination of black and white — is not really a colour either.
The colour wheel also reveals the relationship between colours, something to take note of if you’re out to create an interior scheme that is gentle on the eye and harmonious, or alternatively, contrasting and vibrant.
Harmonious colours sit next to each other on the wheel and usually take in the primary and secondary colours which sit between two primaries. When combined with neutrals and white, they create a room scheme that is pleasant and tranquil.
Alternatively, colours opposite each other on the wheel are referred to as complementary colours, such as red and green, and when used together they can give a room greater vibrancy than harmonious colour combinations. Remember, though, that complementary colours should never be used in equal parts in a room as the eye cannot focus on both at the same time, giving it nowhere to ‘rest’ and undermining the peace and harmony of the setting.
When complementary colours are combined in a room, the idea is to use one for large areas such as walls or floors, and the second for accent features. This technique relates to the fact that when confronted with one dominant colour, the human eye will search for visual relief by seeking out the colour’s complement. By combining one dominant colour and a small amount of its complement, the room will take on a sense of ‘completeness’.
The same unity can be achieved with a split-complementary colour scheme, which is the combination of one colour with the two colours which appear either side of its complement on the colour wheel (such as teaming green with orange and violet). Tone down the whole thing with a liberal use of neutral tones within the room (cream for walls, beige flooring, off-white upholstery) and you’ll create a setting that is individual and welcoming.
After years of research, colour psychologists have discovered that humans have a fairly universal reaction to a variety of colours which transcend our emotional response to them. For instance, whether you love or loathe the colour red, it is commonly agreed that it’s an ‘advancing’ colour, creating drama and energy. Some even say it is assertive and adventurous, expressing warmth and passion but also anger and danger. It is said that a red environment provides an excellent stimulus for creative, conceptual thinking.
The secondary colour achieved by mixing the primaries red and yellow, orange is classed as being stimulating and even attention seeking, making it ideal for accents within a room rather than for use on large expanses. Likewise, yellow is a similarly strong, vibrant colour which works for accent features within a room, as well as for large expanses such as walls and ceilings. As Australian designer Suzanne Green states in her book, Splash of Colour (Random House), “… yellow is the colour of the sun. It represents happiness and has a favourable effect upon human metabolism.”
The cool colours — blue and the secondary colour green — are both intimately linked to the things of nature, to fields, ocean and sky. According to Suzanne, “… green is a conventional, well-adjusted colour. Psychologically, green represents a withdrawal from stimulus. (It) provides an excellent environment for meditation (and) it also creates an air of tranquillity and calmness.”
As far as blue is concerned, it’s considered one of the world’s most popular colours, with tests revealing that a blue environment can be effective in lowering blood pressure and pulse rate. Again to quote Suzanne, blue “has a timeless quality, creating a feeling of melancholy and allowing one to be contemplative. Exposure to blue has a calming influence and it is an excellent colour to apply in the quieter zones of the house.”
Meanwhile, the combination of red and blue — the third secondary colour, violet — is regarded as a extravagant colour, closely associated with the things of knowledge and wealth, rich at maximum saturation and best used in moderation to avoid it overwhelming and disturbing the eye.
To understand the properties of colour and to know why different combinations will or won’t work from a technical perspective is often half of the battle when deciding on room decoration. The best rule of thumb is to start with your emotional reaction to narrow down your field of choice.
This done, apply the principles of harmonious and complementary colour schemes, monochromatic schemes (of one colour intensity only), achromatic schemes (based on the grey scale, representing all the values of grey from black to white), related colour schemes (using colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel), analogous schemes (those that sit next to each other on the wheel with one primary colour in common) or triadic schemes (the use of three colours equidistant from each other on the wheel — such as red, yellow and blue), and begin to evolve a colour plan for your home that you can happily live with.