You’ll remember from last week’s post that the elements of design – line, shape & form, colour, texture and light – are tools, with intrinsic visual and psychological characteristics.
Colour is probably the most complex design element, and it’s also one of the most powerful tools used in interior design.
You can use colour to alter the appearance of a room, disguise its defects, emphasise its features, and set its emotional mood. If you’re on a limited budget, a skilful use of colour allows you to decorate a room effectively without spending a fortune.
So what’s colour?
Colour is simply light of varying wavelengths.
Every light source contains coloured lights; when they are present in approximately equal quantities, they combine to produce white light – light that appears to have no colour (e.g. sunlight at noon).
When white light falls on an object, its surface, depending on its pigmentation, absorbs certain wavelengths of colours and reflects others; the human eye perceives the colour of the reflected light as the colour of the object – e.g. a red surface looks red because its pigments absorb most of the blue and green light and reflects red.
Black surfaces absorb the entire spectrum of light, while white surfaces reflect all lights.
Colour has four dimensions:
Hue is the specific name we give a colour. Traditionally, hues are organised in relation to each other on a wheel, called the colour wheel.
Red, yellow and blue are the most basic colours, called primary colours; they cannot be reproduced mixing other colours together.
When you mix two primary colour in exactly the same quantities, the resulting colour is called a secondary colour. Green (blue + yellow), orange (red + yellow) and purple (red + blue) are secondary colours.
When you mix a primary colour with its adjacent secondary colour, you get tertiary colours: green + yellow makes yellow-green, blue + green makes blue-green, and so on.
Colours evoke different feelings and have certain psychological characteristics:
Blue is calming, relaxing and cooling. Considered the most favourite colour, blue is suitable for any room, except maybe those used for physical activity or play. Not all blues are serene, though: electric or brilliant blues can be dynamic, dramatic, and engaging.
Green is the second most favourite colour. Natural greens, from forest to lime, are seen as tranquil and refreshing. Green is soothing, relaxing, helps alleviate depression and anxiety, and evokes balance, harmony, and peace.
Yellow has a stimulating effect. Cheerful and sunny, it activates memory and encourages communications. It’s a good colour to use in halls, study rooms and offices.
Orange is the colour of fun and sociability and is excellent for creative areas. It is not ideal for bedrooms or areas of possible stress.
Red is energising and stimulating. Red draws attention and can be used effectively as an accent to draw the eye towards a particular element. You can use red in any activity area, but keep in mind that too much red can feel claustrophobic or oppressive.
Purple is uplifting, and calming to mind and nerves. Purple offers a sense of spirituality and encourages creativity, and it’s often liked by very creative or eccentric persons.
Value is the degree of lightness or darkness of a colour in relation to white and black.
When you add white to a hue (colour) you raise its value and create a tint of that hue. When you add black to a hue, you lower its value and create a shade of that hue.
Colours have intrinsic value, too. Yellow has a high value – it’s the lighter hue – and for this reason is capable of more shades than tint. On the contrary, a low-value colour such as blue is able to have more tints than shades.
A design that has little or no contrast of hue is called monochromatic; in monochromatic schemes, the only contrast left is between light and dark – a contrast of value. Monochromatic arrangements consists of any one colour, plus tints and shades of that colour. They can also consist simply of white, black, and the range of grey in between.
As with all relationships of colour, light and dark are relative terms. If you surround a light colour with a dark background, it will appear brighter than the same colour surrounded by a light background.
A colour surrounded with black appears richer and more vibrant, while the same colour outlined with white seems lighter and less intense.
Light values tend to be cheerful and airy, and dark values quiet but sombre.
Intensity is the degree of purity, or saturation of a colour compared to a grey of the same value. Tints (hue + white) and shades (hue + black) have less intensity than pure colours – they are diluted versions of the original hue.
Mixing a colour with its complement (its opposite on the colour wheel) mutes it down, and robs it of its intensity.
Grey added to any colour will dull it, lowering its intensity. Depending on the value of the grey, the resulting colour will also be lighter or darker. Hues greyed or neutralised are often called tones.
Contrast of dull and pure colours can evoke different feelings. A high contrast of saturation (absolutely pure to absolutely dull) in the same colour can be powerful, lively and dynamic.
Mostly neutralised tones of the same colour naturally unify the space, reduce visual weight, and establish a serene, subdued mood.
A combination of a mostly pure colour and a few neutralised tones is lively and energetic, and adds visual weight.
Colours in the red-orange-yellow family are considered warm hues; they are associated with things like fire, heat and sun, and generally make you feel warm.
Colours in the blue-green-purple family are cool hues. They usually make you feel cold, and are associated with water, ice, blue sky. On the colour wheel, cool colours are opposite warm colours.
Warm hues and high intensities are visually active and stimulating, while cool colours with low saturation are more subdued and relaxing. Reactions to colour can vary, depending on personal preferences and cultural background, however compositions in cool colours generally give a feeling of peace, serenity, tranquillity. Compositions in warm colours are more dynamic and can evoke feelings ranging from joy and energy to anger.
Bright, saturated colours and any strong contrast draw the eye, while neutralised hues and middle values are less forceful. Contrasting values are particularly good for defining shapes and forms.
Deep, cool hues appear to contract, while light, warm colours tend to expand and increase the apparent size of an object, especially when seen against a dark background.
The temperature of a colour – how warm or cool it makes you feel – depends on the relationship with its surroundings. When a warm colour surrounds a cool hue, this will feel even cooler; however, when a cool colour surrounds the same cool hue, this will seem warmer.
Colours can be combined in several colour schemes
- Analogous (adjacent)
- Split complementary
A monochromatic scheme uses one colour and its variations – tints, shades, tones – with the possible addition of white, black, and grey; another possibility is to use only achromatic colours – black and white, and variations of grey. In general, monochromatic schemes tend to unify space.
Choose a monochromatic scheme in cool hues, light values and greyed tones to make a room feel larger, using a few darker accents to add depth. Monochromatic schemes in light, cool hues feel calm and serene, and so do variations of soft greys. You can introduce a few bright accents to add interest and make the interior more dynamic.
Analogous colours sit close to one another on the colour wheel – e.g. blue, blue-green and green. Compositions that use 2-3 analogous colours are naturally harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Choose one colour as the dominant colour, and 1 or 2 colours as accents.
Complementary colours are colours located opposite each other on the colour wheel – e.g. yellow and purple; when used together, complementary colours enhance and complete each other. However, when they’re mixed together, or layered transparently one over the other, they tend to dull each other – so now you know why, in make up, you use a green corrector to even out a reddish complexion.
When you use a complementary colour scheme, choose one colour as your feature colour, and its opposite as an accent. If you use both in equal amounts, they will compete for attention and cancel each other out.
Introducing value contrast in the scheme is a good way to make it work – pair a light version of one colour with a dark version of its complement, and then balance the scheme with neutrals – cream, white, off-whites.
The split complementary scheme is a variation of the standard complementary scheme; it uses one colour and the two colours adjacent to its complementary – e.g. blue, yellow-orange and red-orange. This provides high contrast without the strong tension of the complementary scheme.
The triadic colour scheme uses three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel – e.g. purple, green, orange. This scheme offers strong visual contrast while retaining balance, and colour richness. The triadic scheme is less contrasting than the complementary scheme, but it looks more balanced and harmonious.
Effects of light on colour
Light is a very important factor in an interior, because it can effect the appearance of colour as much as other colours in its surroundings. Colours vary depending on the source of light that hits the surfaces. Incandescent bulbs cast a warm glow, while many fluorescent lights cast a cool light. Daylight can be warm or cool, too, depending on the time of day, and the direction it comes from (northern light is much cooler than southern light, for example).
Warm light tend to intensify warm colours and weaken cool hues, while cool light does the opposite. If light is tinted with a particular hue, it will accentuate that hue and neutralise its complementary colour – e.g. blue light intensifies blue and weakens orange.
The amount of light used to illuminate a colour can change its value, too. If you lower the amount of light, colours will appear darker and loose intensity. If you raise the amount of light, colours will appear lighter and more intense. Too much light, however, can make colours look less saturated, washed out.
A final word of advice: since light can affect colour so much, you should always test colours in the environment you’re going to use them, and both in daylight and at night-time.
In the next post of the Design Basics series I’ll talk about texture – and consequently, pattern – and how it can be used in interior design.
Photo Credit: Michael Maggs
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