Color Theory To Help You Choose A Palette Like A Pro

, , , , By Catherine

In this article series about the colors, we’ve seen how color has a major impact on how you experience a room. Now, you might be wondering how to actually combine colors to create a beautiful palette for your home. Whether you want to paint a statement wall, add decorative accents, or simply refresh your color scheme, a little color theory goes a long way.

Below, I’m sharing a few basic design lessons that will change the way you look at interior design pictures and make a transformative impact on the cohesiveness of your décor.

Combining colors and incorporating them into your home is easier than you think. Here’s how:

It all starts with the color wheel!

The color wheel consists of an illustration of hues organized in a circle and showing the relationships between primary, secondary and tertiary colors.

It is a fantastic tool to identify which colors work well and complement each other. And when you understand this system, you can even use it to play up something in the room or to deemphasize something you don’t like in your home (more on that further down).

Reading The Wheel

First thing first, let’s review the basics and some terminology:

Primary colors are red, blue and yellow. They are the building blocks of all other colors.

Secondary colors are created when mixing two primary colors, to create orange, green and purple.

Tertiary colors happen when primary and secondary colors are combined together. There are six hues: yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-orange.

Brightness And Intensity

Playing with brightness and intensity is when colors get fun and possibilities are endless!

Each color can have a different value, which refers to its lightness or darkness, as well as tints, tones, and shades:

Hues: Pure, saturated colors

Tints: When white is added to a hue, making it lighter.

Tones: When grey is added to a hue, dulling or “muting” the intensity of the color by desaturating* it.

Shades: When black is added to a hue, making it darker.

These variations are important because they create form, depth, mood, feeling and textures. Pure colors can be beautiful and lively, but they are likely too intense in a large quantity for an everyday settting. So the key is to play with saturation and value.

Top tip: Deep and saturated colors are great to create a cozy, moody, dreamy and even sexy atmosphere. Bold colors add personality and spice, while muted hues are restful and soothing.

Let’s look at the color red (a ‘hue’), for example, to better understand 1) its values when adding black (creating ‘shades’) and white (creating ‘tints’), as well as 2) its saturation levels when adding grey (creating ‘tones’). Row seven, for instance, shows different tones of red with all the same value.

Top tip: Most often than not, a faded hue -which is chroma 0 to 6, see figure above- is your sweet spot when choosing a wall color for your home. The colors are not as bright and vibrant, but definitely more approachable and liveable in the long run.

Top tip: The saturation of a color amplifies once it is put on the wall. A color that might initially appear too grey on a swatch will end up being richer and more vibrant once it is painted on an entire wall.

Color Relationships

Here are four of the most frequent color relationships, which you can easily identify on the color wheel.

1. Monochromatic

A monochromatic color scheme is when only one color is used in multiple shades (with added black), tone (with added grey) or tints (with added white). As long as the undertone is the same, it will all work very well together.  

This creates a very cohesive look, and everything looks good together in an effortless way. It also greatly simplifies your decorating challenges and reduces color mistakes, because you only have to stick with one hue and layer it with lighter/darker/desaturated versions.

However, this color scheme is the most at risk of falling flat. Make sure to use a wide range of variation, as well as a lot of textures, finishes and even patterns to bring dimension and depth. Introducing natural materials can make the look more interesting and to break up the monotony.

2. Analogous

This scheme consists of three or more colors next to each other on the color wheel. It provides more variations than a monochromatic look, making the room more dynamic. An analogous color relationship is also called a ‘harmony’ because it is exactly that – A perfectly coordinated palette, for a harmonious look that is pleasing to the eye. It can be created with bold, saturated hues, more muted tones, or even tints.

Actually, we often mistype an interior as being “monochromatic” because it is not always easy to identify the hues when they are highly desaturated.

One way I love to use this color scheme is to keep the majority of space neutral, with white or light grey walls, and apply analogous colors when choosing decorative accents.

Make sure to have enough contrast when choosing an analogus color scheme by playing with saturation, shades and tints.

3. Complementary colors:

These are pairs created with colors directly across from each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors emphasize each other, and they are very eye-catching. That’s why they’ve been used by marketers for a long, long time. Just think of Christmas or Easter: What color combinations do we always see in commercials for these holidays? Red + green, purple + yellow. Blue + orange is also another set of complementary colors.

This is possibly the simplest color scheme, with only two hues; one is a dominant and the other is used as an accent. This creates a high contrast look that requires neutrals to balance things out and create a place for the eyes to rest. You can also play with saturation to make it more dynamic and soothing.

I prefer to use this in small doses because it can have quite a strong energy. Just like with the analogous color scheme, this one looks great with a neutral base/backdrop and complementary colors for your decorative accents.

Complementary color schemes work well when you want something to stand out, like a special feature in your home or a piece of furniture that makes a statement.

Top tip: If you don’t like your hardwood floors because they turned yellow and/or orange over time, it is best to avoid a wall color that has a blue or violet-blue hue, as you’ll just emphasize the problem. Instead, choose an analogous color scheme (above) to visually tone it down and blend it in with the rest of your décor.

4. Single split complementary

This is similar to a complementary color scheme, but a little more complex.

Pick a color as your starting point, then identify the two colors adjacent to its complement (its opposite on the color wheel). These “wing” colors offer a similar base and strong visual contrast, but less intense and with more variations, making it more dynamic visually because you are not limiting yourself to just two colors.

It is a color scheme that is difficult to mess up because it is almost fail-proof.

Top tip: For less than $10, you can get a physical color wheel at arts & crafts stores or on Amazon – A great tool I regularly refer to!


I know you are probably thinking something like: “I’ll never decorate my home in yellow and violet” or “A combination of red, yellow and blue is for kids, not for grown-ups”… And you might even wonder what to do with all that theory.

The next article in this color series will show you just that – Beautiful interiors that feature the combinations presented here, and how playing with color intensity (saturation) and brightness (value) can perfect your color palette -And your décor!

Until then, I invite you to identify the colors that are already in your home and see if you can discover one of the combinations mentioned above!

First photo: Jotun

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