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Color Basics Part I by Barbara Jennings

Have you ever taken a digital picture and tried to send it to someone and noticed that available colors amount to 16 million colors? Talk about over-choice. It's no wonder then why we all (yes, even me) feel a bit timid about choosing colors for our home decorating projects. But would you be happy to learn that all of these 16 million options can really be boiled down to just 10 basic colors? Yeah, I thought you'd like that.

I'm gong to present some basic guidelines for you to incorporate into your decision making process which should help you quite a bit. At the very least, they should give you a lot more confidence and help you sort out the maze of choices that will present themselves to you.

GET A COLOR WHEEL - If you don't have one already, get yourself down to the closest paint store and pick up a color wheel. They are very inexpensive and will help you immensely. All of the professional colorists and interior designers use the wheel and find it to be invaluable for helping them select and mix and match colors for a pleasing palette.

In my article on Choosing a Color Palette, I wrote about the 60-30-10 rule. If you check out the pictures in leading decorating magazines that appeal to you the most, you'll discover that this ratio has been effectively applied. It's not that different from selecting colors for you apparel on a particular day. Typically a good outfit will have about 60% one color (the dominant color), 30% a secondary color, and 10% an accent color (jewelry). The dominant color provides unity, the secondary color provides interest, and the accent color gives it pizazz or a bit of sparkle. Of course, there are some outfits that break the "rules", but to break them successfully, you need to know what they are.

For men, 60% of the outfit is the suit (or slacks and jacket), 30% is the shirt color, and 10% is the tie.

In a room, 60% is reserved for the walls, 30% for the upholstery and 10% for accessories, such as a floral arrangement.

When trying to decide on an overall color scheme for a home, it helps to narrow the field to two color palettes. Then settle on the final choice after you have tested it.

THE ANALOGOUS COLOR SCHEME - These are colors next to each other on the color wheel. This is a more blended look which is more relaxing. Use this type of color scheme in the informal areas of the home, such as the family room, den, bedroom, private bath, etc. This is probably the safest color scheme to choose because there is a little of each color in all of the colors making them blend easier.

THE COMPLEMENTARY COLOR SCHEME - These are colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. Examples would be red and green, blue and yellow or purple and orange. Complementary color schemes are generally used in more formal rooms, such as entries, living rooms and dining rooms. This color scheme is a little tricker than an analogous scheme because the color are high in contrast with each other.

PULL FROM YOUR UPHOLSTERY - Colors can be easily pulled from your upholstery. Look at the colors in your drapery treatment, your upholstery, an area rug, your art. Choose colors that blend with what you have already. Let the lightest color in your fabric of choice reflect the ceiling color, then choose a medium value for the walls, and choose a darker hue for the floors. If you have a dramatic work of art that essentially light blue, green and bright yellow, make your walls light blue (60%), your upholstery green (30%) and your accessories yellow dominant (10%). This is pretty fool proof decorating.

It's good to keep in mind that in any given year there are standard colors that have been pre-chosen by the Color Marketin Group. Colors are driven by economics. In the 70's the standards were avacado green and gold. In the eighties we had gray and burgundy. In the 90s we saw purple influencing color. Standard colors are also found on our automobiles and appliances. When you understand that all colors are influences by a color "underneath" that is usually warm (yellow) or cool (blue), then you begin to understand how colors are affected. In the 80s and 90s the under color was blue, so all of the colors we decorated with (generally speaking) were cool colors. Today the undercolor is yellow, so our entire color palettes have warmed up. If you choose a warm palette, you'll find more products that will blend with your color scheme in this decade than if your palette is cool.

BALANCE WITH THE RIGHT VALUES - Pay attention to the "value" of a color. Here is where many people err. Value of a color is it's relative "lightness" (tint) or "darkness" (shade). By not wrapping the values of your colors around the room, you can easily create a room that is imbalanced. Too much dark on one side feel weighty; too much light on the opposite side feels too light and spacy.

Look at a great painting and notice how the weights and values of the colors are interspersed to create balance for the painting. You'll either see a symmetrical balance or an asymmetrical balance, but a good painting will be in balance.

DARK ON THE BOTTOM - Choose darker values for the floor; medium values for the walls and light values for the ceiling. Putting a dark color on the ceiling will feel massively oppressive. Don't do it unless the walls are extra tall, like in a large mountain cabin. Follow these simple rules and you can't stray too far away from what will be pleasing to the eye.

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Color Basics, Part II
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(2004-05 Copyright Barbara Jennings)

Barbara Jennings
is the West Coast Pioneer in Redesign, author of 7 decorating books, a published artist, corporate art consultant, and furniture arrangement consultant. For training in professional furniture and accessory arrangement, or to start your own redesign or art consulting business, please visit: