Colour…. is a very splendid thing

What do we understand when we think of colour? Well, lets just implement a little bit of history here. in 1666 English scientist Sir Isaac Newton discovered that ‘colour’ was created when pure white light would pass through a prism, it was here when colours started to be used to its full advantage and was incorporated into everyday life.

This weeks theory session was all about colour, and its significance in the world of interior design. Colour within design is not just colour, but the mood, temperature, structure. Colour is a huge contributing factor when planning the design of the interior and exterior of a building or space. Colours have the tendency to make us feel different and this should definitely be a big consideration when choosing the colour schemes for a planned design. Yes colour is that serious, so serious that many psychologists have taken a lot of time to study how each specific colour makes us feel! Colours are powerful communication tools, so powerful that we can actually be manipulated to feel a certain way in a room, scary. Here are just a few examples of how psychologists have used colours as holistic treatments:

  • Red was used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation.
  • Yellow was thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.
  • Orange was used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.
  • Blue was believed to soothe illnesses and treat pain.
  • Indigo shades were thought to alleviate skin problems.

Colour has also been said to influence performance which i have to totally agree with. i.e. the colour red is said to be seen as a threatening colour, a study found when exposing students to the colour red before an exam. However, the main sector where this information would be important is of course in design! When designing a work space/office, the colour red would want to be avoided as it could make workers feel anxious, the colour blue is said to also want to be avoided as it could make workers feel a bit down. The golden colour for performance is the mighty green, it is often described as a refreshing and tranquil colour. When decorating interiors, green is used for its ‘calming effect’ e.g. contestants waiting to appear on a television programme often sit in ‘green rooms’ to relax before the show.

  • Green is calming, refreshing, natural
  • Black is mourning, evil, it absorbs all light in the colour spectrum
  • white is serenity, purity, cleanliness, white makes a room appear more spacious
  • Red is love, warmth, comfort
  • blue is calm, serene, often preferred by men
  • Purple is calm, strength, divinity
  • Orange is excitement, energy, a combination of yellow and red

It is this significance which designers must, and do take into consideration when choosing interior colours, designers will decide on a colour depending on the wanted purpose of the space.

(Fig.1) Using white and greens together creates an epiphany of tranquility, space and relaxation.

In order to get comfortable with using colours and knowing which ones to use when and where within our designs, we must understand the different colours, how they are made, and furthermore their properties. Firstly we have our primary colours red, yellow and blue, these are pure colours which can create other colours when mixed together, these are called secondary colours. The secondary colours are: Orange – made from yellow and red, Purple – made from red and blue, and Green – made from blue and yellow. We then have tertiary colours which are colours made when one primary colour and one neighboring secondary colour are mixed together, our tertiary colours are:

  • Yellow-Orange
  • Red-Orange
  • Red-Violet
  • Blue-Violet
  • Blue-green
  • Yellow-Green
(Fig.2) A basic wheel representing Primary colours, Secondary colours, and the tertiary colours

Furthermore we also have complimentary colours, which when combined together cancel each other out, which means a sort of grey-scale colour will be produced. When placed side by side complementary colours create the greatest contrast, for this reason often ‘opposite colours’ is a better term to use.


As seen in the figure above, the complimentary colours are: Purple placed with yellow, Blue placed with orange, and red placed with blue. It can be easily seen how the two differentiating colours placed together bring out the best in each other. Using complimentary colours in spaces such as nursery’s and play areas is something which designers do often as it makes the place fun and eye-catching for children.

The final colour group is analogous colours, which are simply groups of three colours next to each other on the colour wheel, one being the dominant colour which would be a primary or secondary colour.

(Fig.4) Analogous colours

After understanding the different colour groups we must then study the 3 different properties of colour, this is basically the 3 different advances which each colour can have by either adding or taking away Hue, Saturation, or Tonal Value.

Hue is basically a fancy work for colour or shade. If we add whites to the hue, this affects the tone of the specific colour, if we add blacks to the hue, this affects the shade of that specific colour. Lets have a better look.

(Fig.5) To the center of this colour wheel we have a variation of different tones, due to the addition of white to each colour. To the outer of the colour wheel we have a variation of different shades, due to the addition of black to each colour.

Saturation is simply how intense a colour is, it is the degree to which it differs from white. Saturation influences the grade of purity or vividness of a colour or image. To change the saturation of a colour we must add it with the colour opposite on the colour wheel i.e. adding red with green lowers the saturation, and will cause the red to become grey/shaded.

(Fig.6) A diagram to show the different tonal values of red. Adding saturation makes the colour more pure. Taking away saturation makes the colour appear more grey and drab. Increasing brightness brings the colour more towards white, and decreasing brightness brings the colour more towards black.

Tonal value is the light or dark of a colour independent of its chromaticity, value is the most important design element of a painting. Tonal value is highlighted in (Fig.6) as we can see how red can be manipulated to white or black depending on the brightness (tonal value).

(Fig.7) Four colours, all showing different tonal values

Click here to have a try at playing with different tones and shades of colours

Creating colour harmony within design

Harmony is something which is appealing to the eye, something in which all interior designs aim to be. Visual harmony creates an inner sense of order for the viewer and a happy balance for the brain to interpret. If a space is not harmonic, this tends to mean that it will be boring and/or chaotic, if a colour scheme is too chaotic the brain will reject what it cannot recognize and will be completely put off by it. Using a harmonious colour scheme is all about delivering visual interest and a sense of order.

extreme unity leads to under-stimulation, extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony is a dynamic equilibrium.

Basing a scheme on Analogous colours

(Fig.8) An analogous colour scheme works for very subtle, calming interiors.

Basing a colour scheme on complimentary colours

(Fig.10) A clever complimentary colour scheme used in a bedroom. The contrasting colours compliment each other, making the yellows pop out, and the purples sort of sit back.

Colour specifying

Of course it is not always easy to know which colours will go together right off the top of your head, and sometimes we don’t have time, which is why colour specifying tools such as The Pantone Colour Matching System, have been invented. This is a simple standardized online colour matching system used by manufacturers in all different locations to ensure that certain colours match without having to contact one another. The Pantone colour chart is used in many different industries, mainly printing, however the matching system has proved to be much help for artists, designers, manufacturers and all kinds of different creative professionals worldwide for accurate colour identification. Such charts can be seen within companies such and B&Q, whom give away free paper colour matching charts to customers who are hoping to decorate their homes or other interiors.

We also have print based colours which are understood in the form ‘CMYK’ which stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Meaning black), however this printing process does vary by print house, press operator, press manufacturer, press run etc. The colour black is represented as ‘K’ within the CMYK colour chart to signify that the Cyan, Magenta and Yellow plates are carefully ‘Keyed’ with the key of the black key plate, however it is argued that the K is simply used as it is the last letter of ‘black’ and B already stands for blue, which is easier to understand.

(Fig.12) A CMYK colour model

In contrast to the CMYK colour chart there is also the colour model RGB, which stands for red, green and blue. This is an additive colour model by which all of the colours are placed together to create a series of different colours. The RGB colour model is used mainly for displaying and representing images through televisions and computers.

(Fig.13) A RGB colour model

RAL is also another useful colour specifying tool used in Europe most often when implementing varnishes and power coats, however nowadays it is very much also used for panels of plastic. RAL is a highly renowned colour standardizing tool used in various different departments including architecture, the industry, and construction. Click here to see an example.

Self directed: Colour wheel and mood board


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