Planning Successful Colour Schemes

Getting the colour scheme for any given room right can be fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. Decorating trends, like fashion, continually change, and yesterday’s favourite neutral colour may well be old hat tomorrow. To add to the problem, the sheer choice of available colours can be downright overwhelming, and even if you already have a vague idea of the colours you wish to use, things may look very different in the cold light of day. Here are a few pointers on how to design a colour scheme that will look like it has been created by an interior designer.

Looking for Inspiration

If you do not already have a basic idea of what colours to use, it often helps to look at nature, which can be a most inspiring influence. Take, for instance, the sight of an autumn forest swathed in harmonious shades of gold, russet and copper; the vibrant yellow paired with delicate mauve on a spring crocus, or the bright red berries of holly sitting perfectly well among deep green leaves.

Flower gardens also give a perfect example how seemingly clashing colours can live in perfect harmony, while summer fields and forests show a plethora of shades of green, stressing the fact that tonal schemes are not necessarily boring and dull. In a similar fashion, the beach shows a perfectly matching palette of caramels, muted browns and slate greys.

Once you have a rough idea of the colours you may wish to use, it helps to determine whether you wish to go for a complementary, harmonious or tonal scheme. Using colour wheels will help to determine what will go with what.

Complementary Colour Scheme

basic complementary colour wheel

Complementary, or contrasting, colours essentially sit opposite one another on the colour wheel, like the green and red shown on the image, for example. It is essential to determine which of these colours will be used more than the other, as using them in equal proportions will result in them cancelling each other out. Trying this combination out with accessories or a rug is always a good idea, especially if the use of such a bold, dramatic combination makes you a little nervous. If a third colour is introduced, it should preferably be in a lighter (or darker) shade of one of the two primary colours.

The overall impact of these colours can be balanced by introducing neutrals like white or cream. Using a light tone of one of the colours and a dark tone of the other equally works very well – a very pale yellow would, for instance, look great when combined with a deep mauve.

Harmonious Colour Scheme

basic harmonious colour wheelHarmonious colours are those sitting side by side on the colour wheel. While the image here shows just a basic range of colours, it is possible to find wheels with much wider range of colour tones, which is ultimately more suitable for this purpose. Such a wheel will, for example, have red next to rust, which in turn will be next to terra cotta.

To ensure a balanced look in which none of the chosen colours overpowers the others, it is important to select similar densities. The overall appearance of the scheme can be made bolder by choosing deeper tones, and using a primary colour as one of the selections will create striking effects.

Tonal Colour Scheme

Basic Tonal Colour Wheel

Also often referred to as a monochromatic scheme, this option uses different tones of the same colour. Again, a colour wheel will show different options. To prevent the room looking bland and boring, patterns and textures need to be introduced.

As a rule, most people will choose a maximum of three tones. Where these tones are used is also important – using the lightest shade on the ceiling and the deepest one near the floor, for instance, will create an illusion of space, while using them the other way round will have the effect of ‘shrinking’ a room.

Mood Board

Having decided on a basic scheme, it helps to create a so-called mood board. After collecting paint colour cards and fabric swatches, pictures of rooms you like (out of magazines, etc) and anything else you may find useful, lay out these elements out on a board in a way that reflects the layout of the room.

The samples should, by the way, be of a size roughly representing the amount of space they will occupy in the room – a fabric swatch denoting a carpet, for example, should be larger than swatches denoting cushions. It also helps to bear existing fixed elements of the room in mind – this may be the colour/ material of the flooring or carpet, for instance.

Testing Paints

Once you have decided on your colours and feel you are ready to get started, purchase sample pots of your colours and paint them onto large pieces (preferably no smaller than 4 x 4 ft) of non-absorbent white card or paper (one colour per sheet).

Place these sheets on the wall and leave them there for a day or two. Move them around the room to see the colours in different light conditions. This may seem like a lot of effort, but even the most carefully thought out colour schemes may end up looking washed out or become irritating after a couple of days once in position. It is better to find this out through samples, rather than after painting the whole room. Disappointment can often be avoided by considering the effects of light on colours to begin with.

Colour and Light

Cool and Warm Colours

Both natural and artificial light – especially fluorescent strip lighting – can make colours look very different once they are on the wall, making it necessary to check how your colours look during the day and at night.

Even daylight can make a dramatic difference to how a colour looks – that stunning blue seen on a wall in the Mediterranean, for instance, is likely to look pale and washed out under the cold northern light of the UK.

North-facing rooms with little sun can be made to feel warmer with the help of warm colours, while south-facing rooms can be kept airier and cooler with cool colours (see image for reference).

Most colours will appear flat in overhead lighting  this can be avoided by using ambient lighting and dimmers. Halogen bulbs also provide much truer colour representations than tungsten bulbs. To prevent pale neutrals looking washed out in artificial or strong daylight, it helps to select deeper shades.

Finally, the paint’s finish makes a difference – matt eggshell colours appear darker than glossy ones, and textured paint/ painting on textured walls will equally result in darker colours than painting on smooth walls.

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