Choosing the right colour for your space: a guide to colour theory

A vital building block in home design, colour theory is more complex than it looks. Rin Simpson explains.
Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Sarah Lazarovic for The National

What is colour - and why is it important?

In a nutshell, colour is light energy. We see objects because light - which is electromagnetic radiation - bounces off them and into our eyes. As Sir Isaac Newton discovered, light can be split into different colours based on the varying wavelengths that make it up. The colour of an object is determined by which wavelengths are absorbed and which are reflected. So a red object will reflect the "red" wavelengths but absorb the rest. Black absorbs all wavelengths; white reflects them all.

Of course, much depends on how we perceive colour, which is where colour theory comes in. This is what artists and designers use to explore how colours can be mixed, and the effect of various combinations. It has a history that dates back to the likes of Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century, but it was in the 18th century that it really took off, especially after the publication of Sir Isaac's Opticks in 1704.

Learning the lingo

Colour theory has its own unique language, and it's worth brushing up on a few key terms. The three essentials are hue, saturation and brightness. Hue refers to the colour itself - red or green, for example. Saturation is about how strong or dominant the hue is, and is determined by how much grey is mixed in. When thinking of saturation, you might describe a colour as pale or weak, or strong or pure, but when you're thinking about how light or dark it is, you're talking about its brightness (also called luminosity), which is about how much the colour reflects light and is affected by the amount of black or white that's mixed in.

Value is another word that relates to how "strong" a colour is, and can be defined as how much darker it is than white. So yellow has a lower value than navy blue, which itself is lower than black. Additionally, a tint is a hue that has been lightened by adding white, while a shade has been darkened by adding black. Finally, chroma is the property that makes a colour appear to be strong (ie saturated) - so pastel has low chroma, red apples have high chroma, and black, white and grey have none.

Colour classification

It may seem complicated, but the various measurable aspects of colours mean that we can be very precise about classifying them. Albert H Munsell (1858-1918) was obsessed with doing just that, and created the Munsell colour system, to accurately name each colour based on value, hue and chroma. The American painter used a numerical scale rather than giving colours romantic but ultimately useless names like so many paint companies do today.

Munsell's work lives on today in Munsell Color, a company whose services include creating custom colours and helping manufacturers meet colour standards. Similarly, Pantone has been identifying, matching and communicating colours for nearly 50 years, and is well known in the design industry for its colour trend predictions. When Pantone named Emerald 17-5641 as its "colour of the year" for 2013, for example, clothing and homewares of that colour began to show up everywhere.

Colour wheels

The traditional diagrammatic representation of colour is the colour wheel, first developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. In its simplest form, it shows the three primary colours - red, blue and yellow - or it can include the secondary colours (green, orange and purple) and the tertiary ones (orange can be yellow-orange or red-orange). More complex wheels have a white centre, with rings of colour increasing in saturation towards the circumference.

The colour wheel allows us to understand the way that colours relate to each other. Hues at opposite sides of the wheel, for example, are contrasting (also called complementary) - like purple and orange. They can be used together with vibrant and dramatic effect. On the other hand, you can create a more harmonious look by using any three hues that are side by side on the colour wheel.

Combining colours

Hold a swatch of a single colour up against a white wall. Now hold it against a coloured wall. How does it affect what you see? Colour may be scientific, but it's also subjective. Greens look more yellowy against a blue background, for example, and more blue against yellow. Red appears more brilliant within a black frame, but loses its spark within an orange one.

It was German-American artist Josef Albers who made it his life's work to study "colour context". His Homage to the Square, a series of paintings and prints completed in the mid-20th century, showed different coloured squares nested within each other, and are still studied by art students today.

Colour context is one reason why it's so important to build a mood board before making any final decisions about colour combinations for the home. You can see for yourself how it works at, where you can try to guess whether an inset colour in one frame is the same as the inset colour in another.

Colour palettes

There are a number of traditional palettes that work well in the home, such as navy, white and sand, used in coastal decor schemes, or the recently trendy "new neutrals", popularised by Scandinavian design. However, once you've mastered the basics of colour combination, the possibilities are endless. Studying photographs can reveal surprisingly effective combinations, as designer Jessica Colaluca's work at Design Seeds proves.

The importance of light

We've learnt that colour is all about light reflection, but light itself can have different colours, which in turn affects the way we perceive the colours of objects. Just look around your neighbourhood on a bright, sunny day compared with a dull, cloudy one. It's for this reason that, when choosing paint, it's worth covering a section of wall with a sample pot and seeing what it looks like at different times of day and in different conditions. Notice how electric light affects the colour too - some bulbs are designed to mimic natural light, while others have a more orange or blue tone.

Angle is another factor to consider when choosing paint colour. Light from the window will bounce off each wall - not to mention floor and ceiling - differently, creating a subtly varied version of the colour that you choose. The best way to see how a colour will look from all angles, in direct sunlight and in shadow, is to paint the inside of a cardboard box. You can then move the box around the room to get a thorough idea of how your chosen shade will look in various settings.

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Published: August 2, 2013 04:00 AM


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