The Basics of Using Colour

3D colour chart

Primary colours: The three primary colours are red, yellow and blue. All other colours originate from these three pure hues.

Secondary colours: The secondary colours are created by mixing together two primary colours; e.g., red and yellow make orange, blue and green make green, and red and blue make violet.

Tertiary colours: The tertiary colours are made by mixing together equal parts of the primary and the secondary colours next to it – red/orange, yellow/orange, yellow/green, blue/green, blue/violet and red/violet.

Tint: A colour to which white has been added.

Tone: A colour to which grey has been added.

Shade: A colour to which black has been added.

Value: A value is a colour’s weight or strength - pink is a pale value of red.



True neutrals: Pure black, pure white and grey created by mixing together black and white are the only true neutrals.

Accepted neutrals: Other greys, browns, beiges, creams, off-whites and similar colours are accepted as being neutrals.

Advancing colour: All the warm colours (red/violet, red, red/orange, orange, yellow/orange, yellow) are advancing colours - they appear to come towards you. Strong, warm colours can make a room seem cosy and intimate, but one must be careful as in a small room the effect of too many advancing colours can be claustrophobic. A warm colour used on a ceiling and the floor will appear to draw the ceiling down towards the floor - this can be useful if one wishes to “lower” the ceiling of a very high room in order to make the room seem more intimate.

Receding colour: All the cool colours (green, blue/green, blue, blue/violet) are receding colours - they appear to go away from you. The paler versions of these colours are particularly useful in helping to create an illusion of space. The brighter versions can cool down a too-hot room scheme. If bright cool colours are used in decorating, care must be taken as they can make a room appear smaller.

Surface texture: The texture of a fabric can affect the appearance of colour because of the way in which the light is absorbed or bounces off the surface; e.g., satin reflects light, velvet absorbs light. If both a piece of satin and a piece of velvet were dyed the same colour, let’s say red, the satin would appear lighter and brighter, while the velvet would appear darker and richer because of the way the two fabrics react to light. A rough-textured fabric will cast shadows upon itself, thereby affecting the appearance of its colour.



Monochromatic colour scheme: A monochromatic colour scheme is created when values of only one basic colour is used, e.g., various tints, tones and shades of blue. The colour must change in tone and intensity. There must be enough contrast within the values of the chosen colour if the scheme is not to be dull or boring. The scheme must be based on the same segment of the colour wheel - using turquoise, Wedgewood blue and lavender blue would not constitute a monochromatic scheme as the first colour is blue/green, the second is a value of pure blue and the third is blue/violet. Rooms decorated in a monochromatic colour scheme need to be combined with a neutral (black, white, grey or an off-white) and usually benefit from a contrasting accent or accents.

Complementary colour scheme: This is created when two colours which lie directly opposite each other on the colour wheel are used; e.g., red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and violet. However, different tints, tones and values of the colour can be used, so you may have a scheme of turquoise and terracotta, rose and sage green, primrose and lavender.

Adjacent colour scheme: This scheme is created when you use a number of colours which are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel, e.g., yellow, yellow/green, green, blue/green.

Split complementary colour scheme: This is created when a colour is mated with two colours which flank its direct opposite on the colour wheel - blue with red/orange and yellow/orange; violet with yellow/orange yellow/green.

Using existing features: The best way to get a good colour match for a scheme designed around an existing carpet would be by colour sampling. This would mean taking a sample of the carpet around while shopping for the wallcovering, fabrics, paint colours and furniture. If it was impossible to bring along a sample of the carpet (discontinued range, no extra pieces available, etc.) it is possible to use paint colour cards as a guide to colour, or pieces of wool, paper, ribbon, or embroidery silks.



Some General Colour Rules

  • To make a tall ceiling look lower: Paint it with a warm colour, ideally in the same colour as the floor covering - terracotta for example;
  • To make a low ceiling seem taller: Paint it a pale cool colour, like pale blue or pale green, or white;
  • To make a small room look larger: Paint it a pale yellow as it is highly reflective;
  • To create a warm, cosy atmosphere in a large area: Use a warm colour like deep terracotta;
  • To make a long, narrow area look wider: Use a pale cool colour like pale green;
  • To make a long floor area seem bigger: Use a neutral colour (beige, a natural fibre floorcovering, wood) on all the interconnecting floor areas;
  • To make an interesting feature stand out: Paint it or cover it with a fabric that will make it stand out against its background - a pale colour like pink will stand out against a dark green background. White will stand out against navy;
  • To disguise an ugly feature so it fades into the background: Paint it the same colour as its background so that it blends into the background and “fades” away;
  • To warm up a cold north-facing room: Use warm colours to take the chill off. These can be light, dark, rich or strong, depending on size of the room. Lighter versions will make the room look bigger; dark, rich or brighter colours will make it seem smaller and more intimate;
  • To cool down a sunny room: Use the cooler colours to cool it down. If the area is large, use stronger versions of the cool colours, but if it is small it is best to use the pale tones in order to create an illusion of space.


Ideas for General Colour Schemes

Colour scheme for a fast food restaurant: I would recommend a scheme with orange, blue and yellow. Orange and blue are complementary colours - a vivid, clashing scheme - and yellow is also a bright, vibrant colour. Orange and blue is a highly stimulating scheme which is ideal in an area where you want people to move on quickly. The walls could be painted in wide vertical bands of yellow and orange, with the trim painted blue. The seating could be a mix of the three colours, and the flooring in blue and orange linoleum in huge abstract patterns. The windows could be covered in wide roll-up blinds in the same abstract prints.

Colours for a small intimate French restaurant: Here I would suggest a dark red in a lacquer finish for the walls, red and golden yellow harlequin patterned fabric for the seating, starched cream tablecloths, cream damask curtains with a lining in the red & golden yellow harlequin fabric, reclaimed wooden floors stained a dark walnut, and cream paint on the woodwork and ceiling. Candles on the tables would reflect in the lacquered walls giving off a flattering light. The dark red walls would help make the room feel small and inviting as well as stimulating the appetite. The harlequin pattern reflects the French theme and the golden yellow is rich, warm and inviting - ideal for the elegant, sophisticated scheme. The cream tablecloths, curtains and wood trim would act as a sophisticated neutral, and the dark floor is warm and inviting.

Colour scheme for a staff canteen: This scheme could be orange, lime green, and red-violet. These colours (very near the secondary colour range of orange, green and violet) are vibrant and stimulating - they are fresh and colourful enough to draw people into the canteen, but too stimulating to make people want to stay very long.

Colour scheme for a busy office typing pool: A bright, sunny yellow on the walls, a neutral floorcovering, blue doors, blue filing cabinets, white trim, blond wood desks and ergonomic office chairs with blue upholstery, light wood-slat Venetian blinds. The yellow is a stimulating colour which would be set off by the neutral flooring, and neutral blond wood furniture and window blinds, as well as the white woodwork paint. The blue is low in reflectance value so would calm down the sunny room.

Colours to use in a city ‘penthouse apartment’: Off-white walls and trim, reclaimed antique pine flooring, antique pine furniture, lots of antique quilts displayed on the walls showing off their textures, patterns and bright colours - red & white starburst, blue and yellow wedding ring, green and gold log cabin. A huge braided cotton rug in blue, red, green and white covers the floor. The upholstery is creamy white (no children in this flat!), with colourful throws and cushions made out of quilt remnants adding the colour. The long window is covering with cream roman blinds. The base scheme is neutral with the bright colours in the the textiles adding the punch and visual interest.

Colour scheme for a large south-facing country drawing room: Here is a room for my favourite colour scheme - rose and soft green. I would paint the walls in a very soft dusty rose with cream paint on woodwork, the floor covered in sisal with a lovely big kilim in deep reds and blues in the centre of the room, a bold brash flowery chintz in pinks and greens, other chairs upholstered in a pink/green/cream check, and pink/cream stripes, the curtains and pelmets in a pink/cream stripe with the chintz used as lining. Needlepoint cushions would pick up the richer colours of the kilim and help balance the green/pink scheme. I would suggest a green and cream theme to continue into the conservatory to link with the drawing room and, from there, to the greens of the garden.

Colours for the living area of a Welsh open-plan traditional cottage: Off-white on the walls (I think traditional cottages look best with neutral walls), a sisal rug with green braid around the edges to sit in the centre of the room on the slate floor, a large comfortable sofabed in a green and yellow large check, no window treatments, simple pieces of antique Welsh pine furniture, two more comfortable chairs upholstered in a green and white plaid and solid green respectively, cushions in yellow check and solid, a large Sunflower painting over the inglenook fireplace as the inspiration for this cheerful colour scheme in what can be a rainy place. Green is a receding colour and will not encroach on the small dimensions of the room while the yellow ands life and zest to the scheme.

Colour scheme for a basement ‘studio’ bed-sitting room: A warm dark terracotta on the walls will make this cold, dreary room welcoming. The woodwork would be painted white; some kilims on the seagrass flooring will add to the inviting scheme, a sofabed upholstered in cream and terracotta ticking is practical, and lots of oversize cushions scattered on the floor in extra seating for friends dropping by. The window has wood-slat shutters which can be adjusted to how much light/privacy the owner wanted.

Colours for a daytime sitting area in a residential home for the elderly: A pale yellow on the walls would give the room light and lift, while a heather/grey/mauve/yellow tartan fabric on the upholstery tones down the yellow and is calming and comfortable. The flooring needs to be a hard-wearing carpet, as some of the occupants are in wheelchairs - this could be in grey with some heather and yellow flecks. Other upholstery on chairs would be a sturdy corduroy in grey, a tweedy effect fabric in the heather and grey colours, and cushions should pick out the mauves, heathers and yellows in the scheme. This is a complementary scheme in soft values of yellow and violet, with grey and white as the neutral balancing colours.

Colours for a north-facing attic room: A vivid orange/fuchsia colour scheme would liven up this room. Woodwork in white will help tone down the brightness of the scheme, and the floor would be covered in a thick, nubby beige textured carpeting. The walls painted in pale apricot are not too alarming, but warm up the scheme and reflect the oranges and fuchsias of the upholstery. A touch of violet in cushions adds the contrasting note.

Colour scheme for the Victorian hall of a terraced house: Buttermilk on the walls above the dado rail, and an antiqued red leather paint effect on the Lincrusta wallpaper below the dado rail add richness and warmth to the hall while picking out colours in the original encaustic tiles on the hall floor. White woodwork freshens the effect, and a coir runner on the stairs is attractive and hardwearing.

© Jonny Ricoh ; London Entrepreneurs 2024