color theory: basics

Okay, we are going to be talking about the choices I made in designing the guest room in the upcoming posts. I feel the need to share with you some design theories, techniques and concepts, so you understand what I’m talking about and won’t feel dazed and confused.

I feel most readers have been raising a family or focusing on their careers and have given design only a passing thought. These readers may have been using instinct in choosing pieces for their wardrobe and home furnishings. Trained designers and artists are more knowledgeable then I am about design and have more specific stylistic knowledge (I have no idea why you are reading this, if that’s you I’m talking about) but I’m divulging what I’ve learned in the hope that it will help the others. While you readers have been doing important work, I have forever been pondering the big question; not “why are we here?” but “why does that look good?”

What is design? Design is the intentional use of a line, shape or color. So, I’m going to tackle color first. I don’t know why? Maybe because it seems to be the design element that people struggle with and appear so afraid. So, join me in going down this rabbit hole.


Color theory?   It is simply, how colors look like against each other. To study color theory you do need to know the color wheel. When you use colors across the color wheel like red and green, the colors intensify and become dramatic. Using colors that sit next to each other, on the wheel, look congruent and more harmonious.

color wheel
basic color wheel

Color theory is more than just colors (hues); it’s also about saturation, shades, undertones, values, etc.  I think the best way to learn about color theory is to read a little about it and then put it into practice. The easiest way to practice is with painting small objects not rooms. Let face it, its way easier to paint pieces of paper, than to paint a room.  For years I painted watercolor paintings and I loved using different color combinations. The lessons learned in painting art can be translated to decorating, gardening, fashion, graphic design, etc.

Some quick color term to get us on the same page (note we are talk about paint not light)

  • Primary colors (you can never mix another color to make them): red, yellow and blue
  • Secondary colors (made from mixing two primary colors): orange, green and purple
  • Contrasting colors: color across the color wheel ie. red and green
  • Complementary colors: color that sit next to each other on the color wheel ie. red and orange
  • Hue: the term for the pure spectrum colors commonly referred to by the “color names” ie. red, yellow, orange….
  • Brown: the three primary hues mixed together in various ratios
  • Black: the three primary hues mix in a balanced ratio that eliminates the appearance of one hue that is seen more than the rest
  • White: the absents of hues
  • Gray: white and black (amazingly all the primary colors at the same time no color) true pure grays are just value the range between light and dark.
  • Saturation: describes the intensity (purity) of a hue. When color is fully saturated, the color is considered in its purest (truest) version.
  • Value: refers to the lightness or darkness of the hue. Adding white to a hue produces a high-value color, often called a tint. Adding black to a hue produces a low-value color, often called a shade.


  • Shade: is the mixture of a color (hue) with black or the opposite color across the color wheel, its contrasting color which increases darkness of the hue
  • Tint: is the mixture of a color (hue) with white, which increases lightness of the hue
tint and shades


Some decorating terms that get thrown around.


  • Neutral colors: a color(hue) mixed with both white and brown or black
  • Clean colors: hues without black or white mixed in
  • Dirty colors: hues with brown with or without white
  • Undertones: the hues added in smaller ratio then the prime main hue
  • Whites: the lightest tints or very small amount of colors (hues) added
  • Grays, beiges, greys, greiges: hues mixed with white and other hues (neutrals)
it is easy to see the undertones in these neutrals



Color for most of us is very subjective or personal. Like music we have emotional responses to colors. Designing with color is more than just picking your favorites or colors you are drawn to. Often we tend to paint rooms with the prettiest version of our favorite color. That version usually is a very saturated color.

We become disappointed when the color becomes overwhelming. There are ways to use your favorite color where it becomes the star not the bully.

After having failed at using their favorite color, many homemakers have started using only neutrals because they have become afraid of saturated color and think neutrals are safer.

Just because neutrals are not as bright or saturated does not mean they are easier to use. I don’t like calling them “neutrals”. It makes the paint colors sound like they are interchangeable when they aren’t. In fact, I find the so called “neutrals” sometimes more complicated because their undertones are hard to see.

Whites can be even worse because their undertones are so light, it makes them even harder to see in a small paint chip. The misuse of light colors with undertones may not be as obvious as with clean bright colors but, they can still be just as disappointing as being overwhelmed by a bright saturated color.

If it can be so hard to pick colors how can you be happy with your paint color choices for a room?

One way is to utilize designer choices and understanding the light in your space.

I don’t mean use colors on those beautiful brochures in the paint department. Don’t use someone else’s choices from the Pinterest, blogland or HGTV. (There goes any hope of a sponsorship from the paint companies or HGTV.) I have fallen for some of these things too. Sometimes these paint recommendations work out but, they can be a boring choice or completely wrong.

Why don’t their color choices always work? Because those choices don’t take in account the facts of your space; for example: ambient light, flooring, surfaces, finishes, furniture, or other things that are impacting the room. Colors need to be seen next to each other in the setting that they will be used in to make an informed choice. I am most happy with a paint color when it is a designed choice.

art is not a thing: it is a way
art is not a thing: it is a way-Elbert Hubbard


Designed choice?  ….. Again, design is the intentional use of a line, shape or color. It is more likely that choosing a color of paint for a room, based on the design of the space, will produce a more satisfying result than trying to work out a design around a paint color. How do you accomplish that “designing” thing first? Well, that’s the trick isn’t.

Since many people have written book after book on “how to design a space?’’ and we could go on forever; I think I’ll stop here.  We will it pick up on another post. Do something nutty this week, to warm your soul.

color theory basics


5 thoughts on “color theory: basics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s