Why do blue and yellow look good together? What makes green and orange an appealing pair? The secret to why some color combos sail and others fail all comes down to color theory—and that brilliant tool, the color wheel. A favorite of designers and artists, the wheel makes color relationships easy to see by dividing the spectrum into 12 basic hues: three primary colors, three secondaries, and six tertiaries.
Primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. These colors are pure—you can't create them from other colors, and all other colors are created from them. Secondary colors are orange, green, and violet. They line up between the primaries on the color wheel because they are formed when equal parts of two primary colors are combined. Tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary color with a secondary color next to it on the color wheel. With each blending—primary with primary, then primary with secondary—the resulting hues become less vivid.
The color wheel helps you mix colors to get palettes with varying degrees of contrast. Four common types of color schemes:
Color can also affect emotional responses and create a mood. Greens tend to soothe, for instance, while yellows are uplifting and energetic. Bold reds are passionate and daring, but soft pink (a tint of red) is considered sweet and delicate. Blues are perceived as calming and quiet; oranges are warm and cozy; and purple, a truly complex color, can be seen as sexy or spiritual. Colors are considered warm or cool because of association. In our minds we compare reds, oranges, and yellows with the warmth of the sun and fire. Blues, greens, and violets are cool because of their association with water, sky, and foliage. As you create a color palette, your scheme should never be all warm colors or all cool colors. Let one dominate and set the overall tone of the room, but be sure to include elements that offer contrast.
Color can come in a variety of forms, such as accessories and window treatments, that don't require the commitment of painted or papered walls. To enliven a neutral base, consider adding another layer of depth to the palette by choosing a complementary or analogous color to add to the original color. Remember, small touches of an interesting color can wake up a room.