Contemporary Living Room

Have you ever stood in your home improvement store thinking  you’ve made just the right color choice only to get home, apply the paint to your wall and there it is—BLAM!—a horrific color that looks like a cross between something your cat hacked up and a jar of baby food? Well, unfortunately for me (and fortunately for you) I had this experience earlier in life, and so I was comforted to learn in my first color theory class about the science that accounts for my eyes deceiving me. This explained a lot to me and now, in a much more user-friendly version, I will pass the info along to you.

I’ll share a few simple terms and some basic color theory so the next time you go paint or fabric shopping—or really any kind of shopping that involves choosing something for its color—you can better understand how it will look once you get it home. And why it may appear considerably different than how it looked in the store.

So, put on your thinking caps and here we go…

Color: The component of light we see reflected off objects.

In order for us to see color, we need light. Duh, you knew that, right? In the dark nothing has color, only shades of grays and blacks. That’s why color can look so different in different lighting situations. For instance, if you look at a color under fluorescent lights, it will have a yellowish look because it’s reflecting from the light source and fluorescent lights cast that hideous yellow tone.

color Palette

That doesn’t mean every color you look at under fluorescent store lights will look yellow, but it does explain why you may have multiple perceptions of a color depending on your light source and why at home, a color might look completely different. This is why it’s so important to put a sample of your chosen color in your space and look at it as many different times of the day as possible.

Right now, I have a taupe/gray color on my living room walls. During the day, with bright sunshine, it looks quite brown. In late afternoon or night the color appears more gray, enough so that people who have been to my house at one time of day and come back another have asked me if I’ve repainted. To be fair, in my case, that’s a likely assumption to make, but the truth is I haven’t.

Primary Colors: Red, Blue, Yellow.

What’s important to remember about this is that ALL colors you see come from some combination of these three colors. This composite quality that forms all colors explains why colors have undertones. It’s why the gray paint you thought was just gray may seem blue on your bathroom walls. Perhaps your shower curtain has some blue tones that bring out the blue undertones of your paint.

Color Temperature: Every color we look at has a “warmth” or “coolness” to it.

Warm Colors: Reds, yellows and oranges are all warm colors. These colors not only can make a space “feel warmer,” but they also may increase appetite and excitability so choose with caution if you were thinking about a red bedroom….or maybe that’s the outcome you were looking for! J Also remember that warm colors can make a space feel smaller. Warm colors advance to your eye and therefore make the walls appear closer to you than they really are. True story. Check it out next time you’re in a bright red room.

Color decisions

Cool Colors: Blues, greens and violets are all cool colors. These colors tend to have a calming, relaxing effect on people. This’s why spas and other places of relaxation so often borrow from this color palette. Cool colors also have the benefit of making a space feel bigger than it is. Why? Because cool colors recede from your eyes causing walls to appear to be further away from you than they really are. Cool stuff, huh? Yes, pun intended.

Want to create warm or cool sensation but don’t want your whole space to be overpowered by your color choice? Remember the Alamo! No, that’s not it. Remember the accent wall! Yes, that’s what I meant. Creating an accent wall is a great way to introduce a color in a more controlled way. Plus, it’s a great way to add interest to your space!

I hope this very brief tutorial has given you some insight into why color does what it does and why you may think your eyes are playing tricks on you. Keep these things in mind the next time you make a big color choice and I’m sure you’ll have success finding just the right color tone and mood you want in your space!

Now what will you do next to love where you live?


Have design questions for me? Submit them here - or visit our forum to chat with other design and DIY enthusiasts!