Color is one of the most effective tools to establish the mood of a room. Before you even take in furniture, flooring, or decor, color sends a signal the brain. That’s why some 1,500 jails and hospitals painted detention rooms bubblegum pink in the 1980s: the color would calm people down and even lull them to sleep. “Several experiments have shown that different colors affect blood pressure, pulse and respiration rates as well as brain activity and biorhythms,” wrote The New York Times.
The effect is a holdover from evolutionary biology. “When you look at red, it does increase your heart rate. It is a stimulating color,” explained Leslie Harrington of The Color Association to Huffington Post. “This goes back to caveman days of fire and danger and alarm.”
Who knew color was so powerful? (As if selecting paint chips wasn’t difficult enough.) But don’t stress. I’ve put together your guide to the basics of color psychology — including how your color choices affect mood, how to use paint color effectively, and how to develop a pleasing interior painting color palette.
The Color Wheel
This is your starting point: the staggering sea of shades that overwhelm you in the paint aisle. Breaking down the color wheel helps demystify the art of making good color choices.
You no doubt remember primary colors from elementary school (red, yellow, and blue). Secondary colors result from mixing two primaries (green, orange, and purple). If you mix a primary and secondary color, the result is a tertiary color (red-orange).
Analogous and Complementary Colors
Now let’s get into how to create an attractive color palette. While browsing your favorite style or interior design blog, you may have noticed tangerine and teal go well together — that’s because they’re complementary colors, or those directly across from each other on the color wheel. Lime and fuchsia are another complementary color pairing that’s aesthetically pleasing.
To keep colors from getting too intense, you can vary the tint, shade, or tone. Adding white to any color changes its tint (that’s how we get pastels). Tints are calming, particularly popular in nurseries and children’s rooms. Add black to a color and you get a new shade. For instance, navy is a shade of blue. If you add gray to a color, that changes the tone. Tones look more sophisticated than a color straight out of a crayon box.
Analogous (or harmonious) colors are next to each other on the color wheel. Nature is full of analogous colors — think fall leaves or sunrise colors like purple, red, and orange. Tropical tones like green, teal, and cerulean are analogous, too. Pick one as your dominant color and try using lighter tints of the other two to establish contrast. If you’re tempted to go for a monochromatic look but want to be a little more daring, analogous colors are the solution.
What Do Colors Mean?
In general, warm colors are more active and energizing, and cool colors are calming. According to surgeon Edwin Babbitt, warm colors can even raise your blood pressure and strengthen you, whereas cool colors can minimize inflammation, lower blood pressure, and help de-stress. (This might be part of the reason blue is the most popular bedroom paint color.) Let’s dig into more detail about specific colors and their associations.
Red: This is the boldest, most passionate color. Nothing wakes you up quite like heirloom tomato red. It’s also quite sensual (see: Valentine’s Day). To incorporate red in the bedroom, use it sparingly for accents, such as trim or throw pillows. For less of a jolt, experiment with burgundy and less alarming hues of red. Rich warm wood or slate gray both comes alive with touches of red. Or try an analogous color palette that pairs red with rich purples and blues. A little goes a long way.
Orange: Nothing says warmth and fun like citrus hues. A friendly orange is welcoming and bright without being quite as aggressive as red. Orange perks up your appetite, making it a terrific kitchen paint color. Don’t balk at the ‘70s rust associations, either — today’s orange can be a soothing creamsicle or flattering peach. Blood orange provides a sweet spot of variety in an autumnal palette with browns and maroon.
Yellow: Perhaps the happiest and most energetic color, yellow injects a bolt of pizazz wherever you use it. It can help you wake up and concentrate, according to interior designer DeAnna Radaj, but too much can make you restless or even anxious (perhaps why babies are said to cry more in yellow nurseries). Yellow is a popular accent color in kitchens and offices, bringing a dash of optimism wherever you use it.
Green: Want a more creative bedroom color than classic blue? Green is a great choice, because it’s tranquil and associated with health and growth. Somehow green is cheerful and relaxing at the same time, and it may even reduce fatigue. A fresh, grassy green pairs effortlessly with bamboo, or a dark emerald green is a classy complement for chestnut or oak. It’s hard to go wrong with green (unless you wind up with split pea, of course).
Source: Peter Kemmer
Blue: According to Freshome, blue is the most productive color, so it’s an excellent paint choice for your office. But be careful with navy, as darker blues in large quantities can give you the blues. For bigger spaces, opt for gentle or bright blues such as sky blue, periwinkle, and robin’s egg blue. Combine it with green to create a spa-like natural retreat, spice it up with dots of mango, or stick to timeless blue and white.
Purple: Tones, shades, and tints of purple — like a soft lavender — can be soothing like blue, but with added warmth (think of a French garden). Purple doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly feminine, either; small doses of eggplant can give depth to neutrals or look striking with forest green. Gem hues like bright fuchsia are more glamorous and stimulating.
Pink: Technically, pink is just a tint of red. While often associated with little girls, a splash of flamingo in an otherwise silver and white room can be just the pep that was needed. It also goes well with navy (safe) or lime green (bold). Pink paint is playful and just plain fun. It’s also associated with compassion and love.
Stay tuned, because in future posts, I’ll cover the best paint color palettes for the living room, bedroom, kitchen, and more!
What’s your favorite paint color? Do you have any tried-and-true color schemes? Let me know in the comments.