Understanding colors and the emotions they evoke

Story by Meredith Coopman

Color is personal and subjective. What elicits one reaction from a person may conjure a very different response from someone else. Sometimes this is due to personal preference, and other times it’s due to cultural background.

The power of color is that it can completely alter your experience. Color is an influential design tool that can make the rooms in your home feel calmer, more cheerful, comfortable or dramatic. It makes a tiny room feel larger or a spacious one feel more intimate. You can make a den cozier by painting the walls with a warm color, or make a narrow space seem wider by using different colors on opposing walls. The paint colors you choose, as well as the color of the furniture and accessories, all create a mood.

Choosing a color palette is an important decision — and one of the most daunting for many people — when decorating homes.

Understanding the color wheel and color harmonies (what works, what doesn’t and how color communicates) will serve as an indispensable tool. Artists and designers still use it to develop color harmonies and palettes.

How To Use The Color Wheel

The color wheel provides a visual representation of which colors blend nicely together. It essentially removes all the guesswork. However, in theory, the color wheel could be expanded to include an infinite number of shades.

Basic Colors

Sir Isaac Newton designed the first color wheel in 1666. Most models are composed of 12 colors, with three primary colors (red, yellow, blue), three secondary colors (colors created when primary colors are mixed) and six tertiary colors (colors made from primary and secondary colors).
Primary Colors Red, blue, yellow (cannot be made from mixing other colors)
Secondary Colors Orange, purple, green (can be made by mixing the primary colors together).
Tertiary Colors The six shades that can be made from mixing primary and secondary colors, such as blue-green and red-violet

Color Schemes

Complementary Color Scheme
When it comes to color schemes, complementary is the simplest. It uses two colors that sit opposite of each other on the color wheel. Typically, one color acts as the dominant shade and the other as an accent. This includes combinations such as red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and purple.

Such a scheme is high contrast, which means that it’s best used in small doses and when you want to draw attention to a particular design element. You could use it to make your powder room pop or to bring extra vibrancy to your home office. If you choose a complementary color scheme, you really need to embrace neutrals. They will provide a place for your eye to rest and keep you from becoming overwhelmed in the room.

Split Complementary Color Scheme
If you like the idea of a complementary color scheme but are afraid it may be a little too bold for your tastes, split complementary is a safer choice. To create this color scheme, you would first choose your base shade. Then, instead of choosing the color directly opposite of your base, you choose the two shades on either side of the opposite color. Those two shades will provide a sense of balance in the room. You’ll still get the visual impact of bold color, but you’ll be able to incorporate more of it instead of relying heavily on neutrals to calm the space.

Split-complementary works best when you use your base color as the dominant one. However, instead of choosing a saturated shade, try to focus on a color that is more muted. Then, go bold with your other two shades in the room’s accent pieces.

Analogous Color Scheme
The analogous color scheme refers to using three colors in a row on the color wheel. Typically, two colors will be primary, with the third shade being a mix of the two and a secondary color. For example, you could choose red, orange and yellow, or red, purple and blue.

The key to using this color scheme successfully is proportion. The 60-30-10 Rule comes into play. You’ll want to choose one color to be the dominant shade, one to support the dominant, and the third, most vibrant color as an accent. Interestingly, you can also create a similar color scheme using neutrals. It’s typically referred to as a monochromatic color scheme. Simply choose black, white and gray in lieu of brighter shades.

Triadic Color Scheme
The triadic color scheme, sometimes called a triad, refers to using three colors with equal space between them on the color wheel. The three primary colors (red, blue and yellow) are a perfect example, as are the three secondary colors.
This type of color arrangement is often extremely bold. Since the colors are in such high contrast, and pure hues are often used, you’ll most often see this scheme in children’s bedrooms or playroom areas. When using colors this lively, it’s always important to consider the nearby spaces. You wouldn’t want to put two different triadic color schemes next to each other. That would be too busy. Instead, make sure the rooms next to your triadic space are calmer and mostly neutral.

Monochromatic Color Scheme
The monochromatic color scheme is derived from a single base hue and extended using its shades, tones and tints. You would be surprised by how many variations, both obvious and subtle, can be achieved from just one color. This approach is considered sophisticated and usually creates a calming effect.

Changing Colors with Neutrals

Tints, tones and shades are variations of hues, or colors, on the color wheel. A tint is a hue to which white has been added. Example: red + white = pink. A shade is a hue to which black has been added. Example: red + black = burgundy. A tone is a color to which black and white (or gray) have been added. This darkens the original hue while causing the color to appear understated and less intense.

Tint Lighting a color by adding white to it
Shade Darkening a color by adding black
Tone Slightly darkening a color by adding gray

Color Temperatures

If you were to draw a line through the center of the color wheel, you would separate warm colors (reds, oranges, yellows) from cool colors (blues, greens, purples). Warm colors are generally associated with energy, brightness and action, whereas cool colors are often identified with calm, peace and serenity.

Warm Colors Reds, yellows and oranges
Cool Colors Blues, greens and purples
Neutral Colors Beiges, browns, blacks, grays and whites

Psychology of Color

Research has shown that each color affects us differently. The four psychological primaries are red, blue, yellow, and green, and they affect the following:

Body (red)
Mind (blue)
Emotions, ego and self-confidence (yellow)
Essential balance between the mind, body and emotions (green)

Interestingly, when you combine more than one color, you get the effects of each. For example, if you combine a highly saturated yellow with a highly saturated blue, you get a color that stimulates both your emotions (yellow) and mind (blue).

Colors can elicit a variety of emotions, affecting mood and output. At the end of the day, it goes back to how we individually respond.

It’s not the color per se; it’s how the person reacts. It’s all about finding the colors you respond to and that make you feel good. So, don’t be afraid to experiment and use color.

Use this as a general reference and then play around. Look at a color, its various tones, and notice your mood. Have fun. Mix and match. I recommend experimenting with color by combining paints until you have a feel for how drastic the impact of neutrals will be. Take an oil painting class. With some planning, you can find the colors that will make your home an expression of your style.

Meredith Coopman has over 20 years of experience in architecture and interior design. She is the design director at InnSpace in Kalispell. You can reach her at meredith@meredithcoopman.com.