Skip to main content

How to Pick a Color Scheme

Choosing a color scheme is probably the most important part of decorating your home yet, so many people are so frozen by indecision that they end up leaving their walls stark white. When choosing a color scheme for your home the most important thing to remember is to ignore fads and trends and choose what you like. The truth is, like so many things in life, it's much harder in your head then it is in reality to achieve. Everyone has colors that they are drawn to, just look in your closet if you don't believe me.

Generally, you should aim to have a flow of colors from one room to the next so that your home's rooms all coordinate. Coordinate is the key word here. They don't all have to be the same but they should be appealing when, in your mind's eye, placed next to each other. This will also have the added benefit of making your home see more expansive.

Cool & Tranquil

Cool & Tranquil

Floors, tiles, cabinets and all other "permanent" decorative elements should be chosen first. It's a good idea to go fairly neutral here. Don't worry, you'll be able to go crazy with color, if that's what you want, when you start to paint. Next, you should choose your major pieces of furniture like a sofa, or bed. Again, go neutral. Color can be added in with area rugs, paint, art, accessories and textiles. Take a look at the dining room to the right, it's a mixture of contemporary, traditional and retro. The color is brought in only on the walls and window treatments (wood tones and cream being neutral). Yet, it seems like it's saturated in color.  This is mostly accomplished by considered contrasts (more about that below).

Warm colors belong to variations of red and yellow.  While cold comes from blue.   The closer you get to the source color the hotter or colder the perception of color.

Warm colors belong to variations of red and yellow. While cold comes from blue. The closer you get to the source color the hotter or colder the perception of color.

Johann Itten's Ground Breaking Book on Color Theory

Helpful Books for Interior Decorating

Understanding Color Theory

Color is a property of light. No light, no color. It all comes down to how color wavelength are either absorbed or reflected by matter. That's why the quality of light in a room is so important. It's essential to know whether your room is south or north facing, for example, so that you can understand if the light is warm (south or south/west) or cold (north or north/east).

Johann Itten, a Swiss expressionist painter, was the first to study how colors interacted with and against each other from a design perspective. He had many theories on color. In fact, the study of color is a very in depth subject, far too expansive for this article. However, Itten maintained that color gained maximum effect through 7 contrasts.

  1. Contrast of Hue: Hue is just another word for color, however Itten is referring to color in it's most extreme form which is found in the primary (red, blue, yellow) colors. The further you move to the outer extremities of the color wheel, the less intense the contrast.
  2. Light-Dark Contrast: Here he means the contrast achieved by pale next to dark color. In it's most obvious form, black vs. white. This is one of the most important contrasts in design.
  3. Cold-Warm Contrast: This is explained a bit more under the color wheel at right. For example, this is the contrast of placing colors from both sides of the wheel next to each other such as orange and violet.
  4. Complimentary Contrast: Complimentary colors are those that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel, for example blue and orange.
  5. Simultaneous Contrast: This is the most subtle and therefore the most difficult to grasp. But I can explain it through an optical illusion. If you stare at the black cross in the circle of violet dots you will begin to see another ring of dots of another color. This is because your minds eye needs to balance the colors.
  6. Contrast of Saturation: This means the contrast achieved by placing a dull hue next to a full saturation hue of the same color.
  7. Contrast of Extension: Colors have different abilities to draw attention to themselves. A contrast of extension is the idea that colors that are more saturated draw more attention to themselves and therefor you can use less of them. Have you ever noticed how in a sea of people the one who will stand out is wearing red? This is due to contrast of extension.

Using Contrast in Interior Design

Contrast adds interest. However, it can also be jarring and how you use it all depends on the effect that you're trying to achieve. The more "jarring" the contrast the more difficult it is to pull off a harmonious look. The best advice I can give here is, if you like using strong contrast, use them in small amounts. An example of this would be a room that is mostly blue with one orange pillow.

Colors that are next to each other on the color wheel are considered harmonious; red, orange and yellow for example. This would be a very warm color scheme with out any big contrasts of hue.

You will get the biggest dramatic impact through light and dark contrast and you don't have to throw a bunch of other colors into the mix.  Think a yellow wall with cream furniture.  Add in a few accessories such as pillows and flowers or perhaps a vase or piece of art with yellow and you will have quite beautiful, yet not overpowering room.

How Colors Influence Us

It's also widely acknowledged that colors can affect peoples' moods and feeling. Even stimulate or suppress appetite. On that note, lets do a quick run down of the most popular colors and their influence on us.

Blue: This is actually the most loved of all the colors. It represents intellectualism. It's positive attributes are: It can relax, lower blood pressure and reduce appetite. It inspires trust, is considered reliable and intellectual. It's negative aspects: it can be considered cold, aloof, unfriendly and emotionless.

Green: Represents balance. It's positive aspects are: equilibrium, harmony, refreshment, environmental awareness and peace. It's negative aspects are:  jealousy, nausea, boredom, stagnation and blandness.

Yellow: Represents emotion. It's positive aspects are: sun and light, optimism, creativity, self esteem, extroversion and friendliness. It's negative attributes are:  cowardice, nervousness, and suicide.

Red: Represents all things physical. It's positive attributes are: strength, warmth, masculinity, and stimulation (can stimulate appetite, too). It's negative attributes are:  aggression, visual strain, and defiance.

Orange: Is a combination of red and yellow and therefore combines the attributes of those two colors. It represents fun. It's positive attributes are:  warmth, sensuality, passion, physical comfort and abundance. It's negative attributes are:  frivolity, immaturity, deprivation and frustration.

Purple: Represents Spiritualism. On it's positive side it can represent royalty, luxury, superiority, abundance, sensuality, and spiritualism. It's negative attributes are: decadence, introversion, suppression and inferiority.

Pink: Represents femininity. It's positive attributes are: it's considered a soothing color, feminine, nurturing, sexual, warm and represents the longevity of a species. It's negative attributes are: physical weakness, emasculation, emotional claustrophobia and inhibition.

Black and white are not actually considered colors though they do have specific positive and negative properties and associations.

Scroll to Continue

Black: is sophisticated, glamorous, mysterious, and represents efficiency, emotional safety and substance. On the negative side it can also be oppressive, cold, menacing and heavy.

White: Represents innocence. Its positive attributes are, cleanliness, clarity, purity, simplicity and efficiency. Its negative attributes are: sterility, coldness, unfriendliness and elitism.

As you can see, all colors are capable of both positive and negative which are brought about by personal association and their relation to other colors. Although the psychology of color is a fascinating subject, don't let yourself get too confused. The important thing when choosing colors for your home is how they make you feel. If you feel good when viewing your color choices then chances are, others will, too.

Now that You Understand Color...

It's time to decide which color's you'd like to have in your home. It's a good idea not to have more than five. However within those colors there is a wide range of different tints and shades, meaning, if for example you choose to use blue, there are many variations of blue (light, dark, dull, vibrant, warm, cold, etc).

Artist: Jenny Saville

Artist: Jenny Saville

Artist: Andy Warhol

Artist: Andy Warhol

Artist:  Otto Dix

Artist: Otto Dix

Color Inspiration from Art

If you have a smart phone, there are quite a lot of apps that will help you decipher what the most dominant colors in a painting are. The apps that are most helpful for this task are:

  • Irodori (FREE) which analyzes a picture and highlights its most characteristic colors for export as a usable palette
  • ColorSnap for iPhone (FREE) matches color snapshots to Sherwin-Williams 1,500 available paint colors.
  • PaintSwatches ($1.99) very helpful when it comes to coordinating all the colors in your home. It organizes your paint-palettes by room, making it easy to harmonize from room to room and shop for matching furniture.

If you don't have a smart phone, don't despair. You can still pull colors out of a painting to use as a color palette for your home by doing it the old fashioned way; with paint swatches.

What I suggest is using the lightest hues in the largest amounts and then add in the most saturated colors. This is the easiest approach. However, if you feel confident in your color abilities, then go for it!

TIP:  This approach will work with anything that you'd like to use as a color inspiration, not just paintings.


Color Inspiration from a Rug or Other Textile

You don't actually have to have a the rug in your room to use it as inspiration as evidences by the first two photos on the right. The rug, with it's pink and chocolate color scheme is feminine and sophisticated without being too sticky sweet. It's also modern and a bit whimsical.

If you were using this rug as the basis for your room inspiration, here are a few things you would want to keep in mind.

  • You can pull colors directly from the rug to use on your walls and upholstery. Take a picture of your rug and make sure that the colors are a good match. Then take that picture to the paint store or furniture store (often furniture stores will let you have samples of their fabrics to take home) and pick out all the samples you think might work. Make sure to take the samples home and try them out in the room (either with or without the rug). This is crucial because, depending on what direction your room is facing, the colors may seem different at home. Once you're satisfied with your choices make sure and get tester sizes to try out before you actually paint. Use a large piece of poster board as your tester. Paint each board with your color choices and make sure to view them at different times of day. The sun can really change the look of a color and it's better to find out before you actually go to the trouble of having the whole room painted.
  • You can also use colors in the same color families but at both ends of the color saturation spectrum meaning the absolute lightest and darkest. This also will help to add visual interest.
  • Make sure to give the eye plenty of places to rest with white or cream colors. The pink and brown room on the right, actually only has two items that are vividly colored, the bed (and even that has a large expanse of cream) and the roman shade on the window. That gives the room an air of tranquility; something especially valued in a bedroom.

The blue and yellow room obviously pulled colors directly out of the rug and used them (in the same hue and intensity) around the room for a very coordinated look and feel. While the bottom room depicts a much more sophisticated approach. Here the colors are all variations of warm tones with only a couple pops of curry and spice for an exotic, yet luxurious feel.

Color Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere

While a piece of art or a rug are great starting points for picking a color scheme, they are definitely not the only methods. Inspiration can come from anywhere and anything that appeals to you. You just need to deconstruct the colors and elements so that you know exactly what look you are trying to achieve.

Other places for inspiration include:

  • Your favorite outfit: Take a picture of it and think about what it is your really like when you have it on. Is it the way it makes you feel? Do the colors complement your skin tone? Is it casual or very down to business? Comfortable or structured? Chances are pretty good, that how you dress is also how you live.
  • A Pillow: Pillows are such an integral part of home fashion these days. And the great thing about a pillow is, you can take it with you where ever you go to make sure that the colors and textures work for you in creating the environment you're aiming for.
  • A Postcard
  • A Bedspread or Comforter
  • Really, you are only limited by your imagination.

Article by Anne Alexander Sieder all rights reserved. For hardcore interior design fans, check out my blog


Lily from Malta on November 10, 2012:

This is a very rich and exhaustive Hub, I wrote one similar yesterday, I interest very much this topic.

Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on February 12, 2012:

You've done it again--created a masterpiece article that covers what some people require an entire book and semester to cover. It's well-organized, interesting, easy to read--pulls you along gently, and it describes a complex subject (color theory) in simple enough terms that most people can actually understand it. THEN you go the extra mile and translate all of that theory into reality for us readers; you show us the connections leading from the theory to the practical. Very few people could write such an article in such a small space, yet you don't seem to be leaving gaps in the puzzle, either. I look forward to reading all of the rest of your articles.

HLMInterior from Winter Park, FL on October 06, 2011:

Color is a very important element of interior design. Since color is so important it vital that when selecting colors for a room your choices are well thought out. A bad color palette can ruin a whole room. The information you give here is very informative, interesting and helpful to homeowners selecting colors for their home.

edelhaus (author) from Munich, Germany on December 31, 2010:

Color has such a strong influence on our moods - and so few people are really aware of it's power. Here in Germany, public saunas also have light therapy that's very popular during the winter months.

BTW, my favorite color is blue as well - all shades from light to dark - with blue-green taking top honors.

Dale J Ovenstone from South Wales UK on December 31, 2010:

Great information & plenty of research concerning colour. I like how you have placed that colour can affect mood. Incidentally, I am a fan of blue, not so much as a colour on a wall, but a deep inspiring blue is what does it for me, mainly when I close my eyes to sleep, if I have difficulties I envisage blue as a colour to cloud my imagination, also, when I am self healing or relaxing I envisage a subtle pale blue encompassing stressed areas within my body for healing.

Sorry to go off the main subject I just wanted to let you know how your article of colours & décor reminds me of other uses of colour.

A great share, thanks Dale

edelhaus (author) from Munich, Germany on December 25, 2010:

Thanks, and thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. :-)

Spider Girl from the Web on December 24, 2010:

Great hub!

edelhaus (author) from Munich, Germany on December 23, 2010:

Zendora, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Happy Holidays!

Carol Marshall from NC on December 23, 2010:

Very nicely done! It is so organized and thorough. I hope some of your talent rubs off on me!

edelhaus (author) from Munich, Germany on December 23, 2010:

Thank you, medor! Because of its complexity, it can be a hard subject to break down into simple terms (even though you would think it was easy).

medor from Michigan, USA on December 23, 2010:

Wow excellent hub... a great all in one about color schemes... thanks so much...

Related Articles