Get behind the wheel - WFSB 3 Connecticut

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Get behind the wheel

© Meredith Corporation © Meredith Corporation

To make sense of the rules of thumb for decorating with color, it helps to know the basic elements, terminology, and techniques of working with color, pattern, and paint. When you've mastered these simple tools, you'll be able to put them to successful use, no matter how much color you want to invite into your rooms.

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.


A powerful tool

The color wheel helps you mix colors to get palettes with varying degrees of contrast. Four common types of color schemes:

  • Monochromatic: These tone-on-tone combinations use several shades (adding black) and tints (adding white) of a single hue for a subtle palette. Think pale blue, sky blue, and navy.
  • Analogous: For a bit more contrast, an analogous palette includes colors found side by side on the wheel, such as orange, yellow, and green, for a colorful but relaxing feel.
  • Contrast: A triad creates an adventurous palette by using three hues evenly spaced on the wheel, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange, for vivid contrast with balanced colors.
  • Complementary: This is the most dynamic—yet simple—color scheme. Using two hues opposite each other on the color wheel, such as blue and orange, is guaranteed to add energy to any room.


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.


Add color with accessories

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.

  • Artwork adds personality to your space and brings in color at the same time. Consider a favorite piece as a great jumping-off point for a color scheme that reflects a vital part of your personality.
  • Accessories can be the jewelry of a well-dressed room. Change plain lampshades to colored ones, or add a colorful border on the bottom of a plain shade. Introduce color through books lined up and stacked on a shelf or grouped on a table. Display colorful collections of glassware or ceramics. Or create displays with natural materials, such as shells, flowers, or fern fronds.
  • Window treatments are excellent for inviting color to a room. Double the impact by lining curtains with a colored or patterned cloth and tying them back to expose the underside.
  • Fabrics help soften a space. Accent pillows provide a means to introduce new colors, patterns, shapes, or textures to a room without a lot of expense.
  • Flowers celebrate Mother Nature's expert hand at mixing color. One beautiful bouquet can suggest an entire color scheme. When flowers or flowering branches are scarce, bowls of fresh fruit make a colorful alternative.