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How to Choose a Color Palette
by Barbara Jennings

You're staring at your home. It suddenly appears huge and daunting. You just bought it and it's all white inside. Or you've been there for some time and you're sick of how it looks and want to make a significant change. Maybe you bought a previously owned home and there is no rhyme or reason to the ever changing colors from one room to the next and you're baffled by how to fix the problem. But you're terrified! Don't worry. You're not alone. It would be great to have an interior design firm come and and fix it all at once for you, but your budget won't accommodate that kind of thinking. What do you do?

Well, you're going to have to tacke it room by room. But relax. It's not as impossible as it feels. But you need a plan or you could wind up with an even bigger problem and waste a lot of time and money having to correct mistakes.

START WITH A PLAN - Developing a plan in advance will give your home a sense on continuity when you're all done. This is important. You don't want to walk from one room into another one and feel like you're in an entirely different home. We'll talk more about color flow later. If you don't have a plan to work from, you're going to make mistakes and wind up somewhere you didn't plan to go.

So let's see if we can lay out some direction for you to get you started. Where does one start?

I suggest you begin with the more formal areas of the house, namely the entry, living room and dining room. These are typically the first rooms you see upon entering and they set the stage and the mood for the rest of the home. Decide on the color palette for these 3 rooms first. Then you'll pull one color from this palette and emphasize it in the more private areas of your home, such as your family room/den, a home office or your bedroom.

LOOK AT THE LARGEST PATTERN - Assuming you have furniture for the room already, take a close look at the largest pattern in your living room, for instance. This could be the sofa, an oriental rug, a dramatic piece of artwork. If you're choosing a neutral color for the walls or carpeting or flooring, pay attention to the beiges and whites in the background of the pattern. Use these colors as your launch pad.

Some designers recommend you open your closet and look at the clothes you wear based on how good you feel in them. This can be a clue to what you will be happy surrounding yourself with. Of course, you do need to consider the other family members too, and hopefully you can arrive at some colors suitable for everyone.

DARK ON THE BOTTOM - Place the darker values on the floor and work up from there, with the lighter colors extending to the ceiling. An easy formula would then be: use darker colors on the floor, medium values on the walls, and the lightest values on the ceiling. Just look at what God did outside. The surface is darker, the trees are a more medium hue, and the clouds and sky are lighter still. This is a fool proof way to select the intensity and value of a color for a particular usage in the room.

COLOR WHEELS CAN HELP - Get yourself a color wheel. This will guide you into choosing the correct "family" of colors to use in a single palette. For instance, analogous colors are next to each other on the wheel. Example: blue is next to green. Analogous color schemes are more casual and relaxing and are great in private or informal spaces. Blues and greens are great for a bedroom. Complementary colors (which are opposite one another on the color wheel) make a room feel more formal and exciting, therefore more lively. These are great combination choices for rooms where you plan to do a lot of entertaining.

HAVE A COLOR RATIO - A good rule of thumb is the 60-30-10 rule. Use your dominant color 60%, your secondary color 30% and your accent color 10%. Your walls, then, would be 60% of the room, your upholstery would be 30% and your accessories 10%. Where do the floors fit in, you ask? I recommend a deeper value of the wall color. Choose a color for the 10% of the room that is more intense. It's job is to "lift" and "punch up" the room. Don't overdo it.

CHECK OUT THE ARCHITECTURE - Contrary to most people's instincts, let the architecture of the room lead you. In other words, if you have a small room, don't paint it all white to make it feel larger. Go with it. Make it feel cozier by painting it a rich, warm hue. In other words, let the small rooms envelop you and make you feel cozy. Let your large rooms expand with the natural light they're bound to bring in. Don't fight the architecture of a room.

DECORATE HONESTLY - Express your own personal sense of style (within reason). We all tend to enjoy the personal expressions of other people but sometimes fail to express our own uniqueness. Be honest in your decorating. Don't copy. Follow your own taste and a few of these simple guidelines and you can make any space look terrific so long as it is a true reflection of who you really are.

ADD SOMETHING BLACK - Put something black in every room. This helps to solidify and clarify the other colors in the room. It could be a black pillow, a seat cushion, a box on a shelf, a vase. You get the idea.

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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: