How Do We Pick Colors?
May 23, 2018 § Leave a comment
We are attracted to colors that are pleasing to us, and nature provides the best inspiration. Color palettes are everywhere, but not everything we see is pleasing to the eye. Why do some colors whisper sweetly at us whereas others, when combined, seem to claw at each other for dominance?
As color enthusiasts, we are all familiar with the color wheel as the foundation of basic color theory and the resource for learning the characteristics of various colors (or “hues”) and which colors work together.
Hue Value: Besides the obvious differences between the colors in this rainbow wheel, one of the easiest characteristics to see is the value (whether one color is lighter or darker than another). Color professionals and other color lovers know this, but just in case… if we look at the second ring in from the outside, we can see that moving toward the outside of the wheel (adding black) makes the hue darker (a shade of the original). Moving toward the center of the wheel (adding white) makes the hue lighter (a tone of the original color).
Color Clarity: The clarity, whether a color is Crayola-crayon clear or kind of muddy looking, is another color characteristic that contributes to our particular color taste and definitely influences which colors go together and which ones fight.
Clear colors are vibrant and are used not only in packaging and advertising because they attract so much attention but also in some modern decorating and architectural color schemes.
On the other hand, the same color (green) when altered by mixing its opposite color with it becomes quieter and more subdued and can blend easily into a landscape. That’s why “grayed-down” colors work well on an exterior – at least for the siding (doors are a different story!).
TIP Mixing clear colors with grayed-down colors (especially if they’re in the same color family – say green) does not work. The clear color suddenly looks garish, and the grayed-down color suddenly looks dirty. It is probably one of the biggest decorating mistakes I see.
Undertone: One of the hardest color characteristics to identify is a color’s undertone, but every neutral has one. And what may on its own look like a simple beige or gray may actually reveal another color (for example, pink, green, yellow) when placed next to another color (or white).
In large quantity (like a floor), either tile above might read “beige.” But the tile on the left has a pink undertone, and the one on the right has a green undertone. It is important to decipher the undertones particularly in carpet, counter, tile, and other materials and avoid mixing undertones when you add fabrics, paint, and furniture, and other surfaces. The kitchen below is an expensive mistake.
There are whole books and courses on undertones alone. I refer you to Maria Killam who literally wrote the book on Undertones. Professional designers, decorators and color experts need to be very familiar with undertones before specifying color.
TIP Don’t Mix Undertones!
So How Do Colors Work Together Successfully?
Almost any color will look good by itself or mixed with white. But we don’t pick colors to stand alone most of the time. We choose color combinations. And that’s where the fun is – figuring out which color combinations work together and how to use each color effectively, whether you’re designing a magazine cover or a living room.
Using the color wheel again, here are some combinations:
A monochromatic color scheme is an easy way to decorate a room as it uses many different shades and tones of one color (hue) like you would find up and down a particular color strip in the fan deck.
TIP If you use a monochromatic color scheme, make sure that the clarity of the color is the same throughout. In the words of Maria Killam, “don’t mix clean with dirty.”
Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel and they tend to have energy when they’re together. So using them in an application makes a big splash like on a magazine cover when you want it to leap off the shelf at you while you’re standing at the checkout counter.
Analogous colors are side-by-side on the color wheel and tend to be either cool (blues and greens) or warm (red/orange/yellow).
Cool colors all used together actually create a calm feeling, and they are often used in high-stress settings like hospitals.
And what better color scheme when you want to generate warmth and draw customers into a hot coffee shop than to use analogous warm colors like pink and orange.
TIP When you are using an analogous color scheme, show those subtle color differences off by pairing with plenty of white! White makes colors pop!
Sharply contrasting colors like black and white provide the starkest contrast, but white with gray and a pop of vibrant neon can really look striking, both in packaging and in a room.
Neutrals are not always beiges and grays as you can see from this neutral living room, but they don’t always show up on a typical color wheel. Many of you may be in what we might refer to as the Gray Period of recent years (gray replaced beige of decades past as the neutral of choice).
TIP Add texture (nubby pillows, shiny metals, soft fabrics) if you decorate with a neutral color scheme to add visual interest in a room without a lot of color and contrast.
Whites — who knew — are so numerous that if you Google “shades of white” you get 982,000,000 results. So there are whites, and then there are WHITES. Unless you are painting an art museum interior, I suggest avoiding a chalky white for your wall color. That particular white is so vivid it practically glows in the dark.
TIP Choosing an off-white (a “white” that leans more toward a color like beige, gray, yellow, or blue) gets you more mileage and will age more gracefully than a pure toothpaste white.
Color trends may come and go, but it’s helpful to know why certain color schemes work and how to make adjustments in ones that don’t.