Basic Color Theory for Interior Design

The basics of color theory for interiors may sound overwhelming especially to those of you who freeze at the very thought of picking colors. Interior design is all about color, but sometimes the lack of color is powerful too. Color theory, in relation to interior design, is a tool used to communicate color scheme combinations or concepts through visual presentations. Sounds complicated, but it’s really not once you understand some basic concepts.

Finding balance in your color scheme is key. You don’t want colors that are in conflict with each other. I’m not just talking about paint colors, I’m talking about all the finishes and furnishings in relationship to interior design from wall & floor finishes to upholstery, to decorative accents and artwork.

Every design element contributes to creating a comprehensive flow in your overall space. Understanding the hues, tones, tints & shades of each color is a key component to understanding how to create a space that feels balanced and pleasing. Make every choice count by being intentional with all your design decisions.

What is the Difference between Hue, Tone, Tint & Shade?

  • Hue: A pure pigment.
  • Tone: A pure pigment with just grey added.
  • Tint: A pure pigment with just white added.
  • Shade: a pure pigment with just black added.

Hue

Without getting too technical and boring you to death on the basics of color theory, the hues are the purest of the colors and are called primary colors which are red, blue, and yellow. There are only three primary colors. They are pure because they have not been mixed in with white or black. Make note that black, white, and greys are considered neutral colors

These three primary colors also make up the secondary color wheel which is orange, green, and purple. Two primary colors are mixed together to create the secondary color. Capiche? I haven’t lost you yet have I?

To further our knowledge of color theory, we must also understand how to apply tint, tone, and shade.

Tint

Adding white to a pure hue you are creating a tint. It is a lighter value of the pure hue. You might also find others referring to this process as reducing a color’s brightness. For example, if you want a lighter tint of red, you would add some white. The amount is purely a personal choice of the red tint you are trying to achieve.

Image of primary color red in varius tints

Tone

A tone of color is created whenever you add a neutral grey to any hue. Neutral greys are created by mixing black and white without any other color. I know this may seem obvious to most of us, but it’s a simple fact we overlook.

Toned colors are just that. We are all too familiar with the phrase “tone it down”, right? Well, it is just that very concept of making something loud, less loud, or something bright less bright. But let’s not put baby in the corner, these tones can add more visual sophistication to your space than you can imagine.

Shade

A shade is created by adding only black to a pure hue. Quite the opposite of a tint. Naturally, it will create a more intense, deep color. When you think of creating a more inviting overall welcoming vibe, you may want to steer clear of shades of colors.

Indicates shades of blue since the paragraph is about adding black to a hue and making the color more intense

What You Need to know about Black and White:

Black and white aren’t really colors, per se. To get more technical about it, color is a reflection of light. Black is the absence of reflections while white is what you get when reflections blend.

To put it simply, black and white can play key roles in helping you achieve warmth or coolness in a room. White makes colors cooler and adding black to a color makes it warmer. However, if you don’t balance warm or cool colors with other colors, you will end up with a room that is too intense in either direction.

We’ll dive more deeply into warm vs. cool at the end so read on!

Recap

To sum this all up, there are endless possibilities when it comes to choosing a paint color for your home, and understanding the basics of color theory will help simplify the process. There are endless varieties of hues, tints, tones, and shades, not to add to your overwhelm. In short, the amount of black or white you add to a hue or the amount of black used in creating your grey will have an impact on the lightness or darkness of the final color. 

Now I know the average person won’t be getting into such details of color theory, but if you’re one of those who may have found a color that is almost perfect, but you can’t seem to find that exact color you had in mind after looking at color swatches till you’re blue in the face (no pun intended), then you just might be one of those people who needs a custom color. And understanding the differences between hue, tint, tone, and shade will help you create that ideal color for you.

Basic Color Schemes

A color scheme is another category that falls under the umbrella of color theory We use the color wheel to create logical combinations of color. We refer to these combinations of colors as a color scheme. A color scheme provides a guideline for a particular aesthetic we are trying to achieve. A color scheme provides the right balance of color style and appeal.

  • Monochromatic:
    One hue can have a variety of tones that create a single or monochromatic scheme 
  • Analogous color scheme:
    These color groupings have similarities as they are found next to each other on the color wheel. For example: yellow, yellow-green, green
  • Triadic:
    This color scheme is created by using hues that are equally spaced from each other, creating a triangle on the color wheel. 
  • Complementary:
    This color scheme draws from two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel. For example, Red and green are complementary colors. 
  • Tetradic:
    Dual Complementary scheme – variants of dual colors are distributed evenly across the color wheel. 
  • Split Complementary:
    These are two colors on opposite ends of the color wheel, with one of them split into two more adjacent colors. For example, yellow-green.

Is your head spinning? I have got just the thing to help you out. Here’s one of my favorite websites that gives you a clearer and more simplified breakdown of the 6 color schemes I’ve mentioned above. I do not have all these memorized in my pretty little head either and who needs to when we have the internet at our hands? Using these tools to reference back to will help keep you from getting too overwhelmed. I believe the general key to the design is the K.I.S.S. theory. Keep It Simple Silly! Best thing my professor ever told me back in college. It has stuck with me since then and I apply it to every aspect of my life. Not to say I do not overcomplicate things from time to time. I am only human after all.

Role of Different Colors for Interiors

Rule of thumb: bright, intense colors will always evoke energy in a space. It may even bring a level of glamour depending on the tones of colors chosen. Colors that are more subdued, and muted will evoke a more calm and peaceful energy level in that space making one feel more relaxed. And as mentioned earlier, colors that are toned down can also add a level of sophistication to your space.

Warm vs. Cool Colors for Interiors

  • Warm Colors: Red, yellow, orange, gold, beige, creamy neutrals, brown, tan
  • Cool Colors: Blue, dark green, gray, slate, deep purple

Just when you thought we were done. Let’s add more to the mix, shall we? This is going to be fun. So what really separates warm colors apart from cool colors? What it boils down to is how they make you feel. Warm colors are lively, energetic, and whimsical, while cool colors are restful, calming, and refreshing.

When you think of choosing a color for your home, it’s helpful to think about how that particular space is intended to be used. For instance, you may want warm colors for your social gatherings areas like your kitchen, living room, or dining room, while cool colors may be ideal for private areas like bedrooms and bathrooms. Now, this ain’t no hard line rule because one may want their living room to be more about relaxing. Think about what your intentions are for each space in your home.

Having said all that, let’s get into the nitty gritty of warm vs. cool colors. 

5 Tips on How to Use Warm and Cool Colors for Interiors

1. Working with Existing Elements

We don’t all have the luxury to completely gut a space and start from scratch. There may be existing elements that need to remain, or at least for now due to budget constraints. Changing out wall tile or any flooring can be costly so you decide to keep it. If your bathroom tile is blue, generally you’ll want to stick to cool colors for the rest of your finishes (wall paint, cabinet colors, etc.) or furnishings (furniture, curtains, area rugs, etc.). If your tile is a creamy yellow, you will want to stick with warm colors for the rest of your finishes & furnishings. We have to learn to work with what we’ve got if changing it isn’t an option. It’s doable.

2. Neutrals

Neutrals can be both warm and cool so do your homework on tint, tone, and shades. If you have a dominant wall that is a cool color. You’ll want to pick a white trim with a more blue undertone. All whites are NOT equal and these are the hardest colors to pick, in my professional opinion. The same rule applies to greys. There are warm greys and cool greys and you can learn more about them here

3. The 80/20 rule

Did someone say “neutrals”? Using the 80/20 rule will keep you from constantly second-guessing yourself. The key to a good balance of color is understanding the use of accent colors. Use the 80/20 rule as a guideline80% of your space incorporates neutrals while the other 20% consists of richer colors. This will prevent you from overdoing it one way or the other and save you lots of time when picking furnishing and finishes to achieve an overall balanced feel. 

4. Balance it out

Too much of one thing is never a good idea. As in life, we need to balance it all out. The same applies to interior design. Too many warm colors can feel boring and too many cool colors can make a space feel bleak. Here’s where you can use what you’ve learned earlier reading about tints, tones, and shades and apply variations of both or either to create balance in a room. Bringing in different textures of tins and shades is useful as well, but using neutrals to pull it all together will be the key to the overall look you are trying to achieve.

5. Set your intentions for each room or area

What is the function of each room? Does that function require an energetic vibe or a calm one? What is the overall experience you want others to feel? What emotions are you trying to evoke? Take some time and outline each space and set your intentions for each now that you have a handle on how warm and cool colors influence a space. Here’s a quick tip: cool colors tend to make smaller spaces feel more spacious while warm colors can make a large room feel cozier and less overwhelming, less empty.

Now that you have a grip on the basics of color theory, it’s time for you to dive into the psychology of color. This will better equip you for making color choices that make sense for your project.

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7 Comments

    1. Thank you, Amy! I’m so glad you found this post informative. Knowing the difference between a tint and a hue is essential in picking a balanced color scheme. I know it’s a lot to digest so thank you for reading it through! Let me know if you have any further questions.

  1. This was very well written. Upon reading, I realize how important it is to choose the right color. It makes sense. Even colors invoke feelings. So having the right hue or tint, warm or cool can truly make a space spectacular. Thank you for this gift.

    1. Thank you, Fabiola! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Color matters when you are trying to create a particular mood in a space. When we can understand the psychology of color, it will help you make the right choices for what you are trying to achieve.

    1. I look at bathrooms as a space where you start your day and end your day. In both cases, you want to bring a calm, relaxing feeling to your bathroom. I would look at some blue-grays, or blue-greens on the lighter tones to create a spa-like feeling. A warm white would also be lovely and you can bring in a change of color with your linens if you don’t want to commit to a wall color.

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