Color theory 101 for home decorators

Nothing turns a house into a home like giving it a fresh coat of paint — but for many homeowners, picking wall colors can be an intimidating process. Some worry about coordinating their favorite furniture and accessories with bold wall colors, so they simply stick to neutral color palettes. Instead of resorting to some boring shade of white, study up on the basics of color theory to help you find your perfect color palette.

Color swatches

Color wheel basics

These days designers are breaking all sorts of rules when it comes to unconventional color combinations, but for beginners it’s best to stick to the basic rule of color theory — colors that are next to or directly across from one another work well together. To find those color combinations, you must first understand the basics of the color wheel.

1Color wheelPrimary colors

Red, blue and yellow — these are the three primary colors and the three most important colors to spot on the wheel. They are the base hues from which all other colors are created. Blend any two of the three primary colors together and you can make any other hue on the wheel — but no color can be blended to create a primary color. However, you cannot mix all three together or you’ll just get a muddy brown.

2Secondary colors

A secondary color is created by blending equal parts of two primary colors together. Blend one part red and one part yellow to get orange. Mix one part red and one part blue to get violet, the fancy name for purple. Combine one part blue and one part yellow to get green.

This is an important fact for new designers to remember because shades of the primary colors that make up the secondary color can be used in the same color palette. For example, if you select purple as the dominant hue in your color palette, you can use shades of blue or red as accent colors.

3Tertiary colors

Tertiary colors are the hues that fall in between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. That’s because they are made up of two parts of one primary color and one part of the other. For example, yellow-green falls between the colors yellow and green — but it is made up of two parts yellow and one part blue.

For decorators, this means that one primary color is dominating a tertiary color palette, even if it is not the main color in the design. In order to balance out that primary color, incorporate accents of the other two primary colors.

To better illustrate this idea, picture a room decorated with a primarily red-violet palette. Because red is already the dominant primary color in the space, red accessories will get lost in the space. However, accessories of yellow or blue will pop against the red-violet color palette.

Game-changing neutrals

Black, white and brown — these are the three basic neutral colors. They are also the hues used to lighten or darken the colors on the wheel when mixing paint colors. Add white to red and you’ll get pink, in a process called tinting. Mix a little black in with baby blue and it’ll turn into a dusty blue hue, a process called shading. Because neutrals can be used to tint or shade any color, they can be worked into almost any color palette to add balance.

Neutrals can also be blended with one another to create subtle neutrals. Mix white with black or brown and you’ll bet shades of gray and beige. Unlike the primary colors however, these three neutrals can be mixed together to create various shades like a warm putty gray or a cool taupe brown.

This is where color theory gets a little bit tricky — because brown is made up of all three primary colors some brown hues look slightly reddish, while others lean more towards yellow or blue. The same can be said for some shades of gray. Pay close attention to these underlying hues when picking neutrals to complement your color palette.

More on color theory

How to use color theory when decorating your home

Follow these tips to open your eyes and home to a world of color.

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