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A Home Painter's Color Decorating Tutorial

Aug 17, 2007
This is the one you were dreading, isn't it? Mention decorating with color, and you have conjured these pictures of an interior decorator flouncing around your abode waving a waif-wristed hand at the walls. "Honey, a chiffon lemon base with saffron trim when you're obviously a fall person? O, look, you've wrecked your fung shui!" In a world where we're not always sure if this tie goes with this jacket, we have to now pick colors for our house which, barring tornadoes, we will have to live with for a decade or two. One wrong color choice and Martha Stewart will be ringing your doorbell at six AM Sunday to whack you with a copy of "Better Homes and Gardens".

What the experts don't tell you is that color palettes are actually very easy to learn and, in spite of their apparent inscrutability, actually have set rules to follow!

The Color Scheme Families
There's just four of them: Primary, secondary, tertiary, and monotone. Every color scheme you can find in the world fits into one of these four families.

The primary colors, as we leaned in grade school, are red, blue, and yellow. They are the only pure hues, and all of the other colors come from different mixtures of these three. Primary colors add a bold accent, but are overwhelming in strong doses.

The secondary colors are green, orange, and purple. They're 'secondary' because they're what you get when you mix two of the primary colors together in equal amounts. Secondary colors in broad splashes are even more striking than primary colors, but in restraint are a gentler accent.

Tertiary colors are the same rule we used to get secondary colors, but this time we're using every color we can get from pairs of primary and secondary colors. So where the first two had three colors each, the tertiary colors get six: blue-green, green-yellow, yellow-orange, orange-red, red-purple, and purple-blue. Tertiary colors aren't quite so powerful, and are seldom used for accents.

We could actually go on and on mixing these colors to make fourth and fifth and so on, but they figured to stop here before it got too complicated.

The last of the four color schemes is monochrome. A monochromatic color scheme pairs one color with only white or another neutral.

The Color Moods

Of course, we're not speaking of the colors themselves having moods, but the moods which are evoked in you, the viewer. If you're looking at a color and asking "What mood? It's blue; am I supposed to feel sad?" just go along with the silly people who feel emotions from colors. Honestly, there are people who react from them and we'd better go along with what they say. It's like long division; you may not understand the process but you know you'll get an answer from the formula. However, it has been established that different people don't react with the same intensity to color schemes - but all react in the same kind of mood.

The three moods are active, passive, and neutral.

Active colors are also called warm colors and they're all the hues of yellow, orange, and red. These colors are energetic and inspire action and alertness. Red is the 'panic color', the one that gets all the attention. Yellow and orange are 'sunny' and are good for inspiration and cheerfulness.

The passive colors are also called cool colors and they're all the hues of blue, green, and purple. These pacify, staying quietly in the background to calm and restore the mood. Green and blue are the natural and serene colors, while purple is just a little bit edgy.

Neutrals are brown, beige, gray, white, and black. As suggested, they mute and restrain, helping other colors blend in to each other or having a low impact effect on their own. Now, you might say "But brown is just a kind of dark yellow-orange, isn't that a warm, active color?" Yes, you're right about the dark yellow-orange. But it's neutral, because it's the color of the Earth.

Now, along with all of the above, here comes some general rules of thumb about colors and the mood characteristics of each one. You may feel more or less strongly about the colors' effects, but remember that if you treat color combinations as if these color moods made sense, you will get a complimentary color palette out of it. To make the color's effect stronger, use a darker shade of it; to lessen it's effect, use a lighter shade.

Red: empowers, stimulates, and dramatizes; symbolizes passion. The color of fire, stop signs, and Valentine's hearts.

Pink: soothes; promotes affability and affection. The friendly snugly color. Every now and then you see jails and mental hospitals painted with pink interiors, because it pacifies the residents.

Yellow: expands, cheers, and empowers; increases energy. The color of gold. The color of avarice and ambition.

White: purifies, energizes, unifies; complementary in combination with other colors. Makes spaces feel bigger and seem brighter.

Black: disciplines, authorizes, strengthens; also encourages independence. But too much of it has a depressing, drab effect. It also makes interior space feel smaller, which is why you almost never see black or dark gray interior walls.

Orange: cheers, commands; stimulates conversation, and charity. Orange is also known to stimulate the appetite, which is why most fast food logos are orange (golden arches, for instance).

Green: balances, normalizes, refreshes; encourages growth. Notice how many schools and universities favor green interiors.

Purple: comforts, imbues with a soul; creates mystery and draws out intuition. Purple and violet hues are found wherever there's a mystic or artistic person that had a say in the decorating.

Blue: relaxes, refreshes, cools; produces tranquil feelings and peaceful moods. Another institutional color; pale blue has nearly the same effect as pink.

Now then, that was your crash course in color scheming. To test your knowledge, try imagining making a statement with different color palettes for different uses. Do you want your home to feel like a warm, rustic haven? Use, reds, oranges, and yellows together with neutral browns. Is your home a meditative retreat to restore and renew? Blues and greens, with neutral whites. Decorating a home office? Gold and green for keeping a mood of wealth and growth, with black for the neutral accent to keep you disciplined.

Now, like astrology, this is a science built around how it's supposed to work. It doesn't work for everybody, and even the stronger attempt to regulate mood by color will have less impact on the observer than, say, whether you're hungry right now. But you at least know the theory behind all the fancy talk.
About the Author
Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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