Basic Color Theory Explained

August 10, 2008

Here at Random Acts of Home Décor, we understand that decorating can be very intimidating to those of us who don’t have the natural décor gene.

There are so many theories and principles to know about. Not only should you be aware of the 3 basic elements of any object (texture, color, material), there’s the “60-30-10 rule” (which talks about proportions of colors in a room), the “3 plus 1” trick (grouping of objects) and Christopher Lowell’s 7 layers of decorating. I feel like I need a degree in advanced mathematics just to buy accent pillows.

And then, on the flip side of these “rules” is the recommendation to let a room tell you what it needs. Designers say “listen to the room,” or “let the space speak to you.” At first I thought they meant I should have a séance, because I live in LA and that’s how we do things here. But what that actually means is that every space has its own particular qualities, and you have to pay attention to them in order to get the best result.

In other words, you can’t just pick out a picture of a room you like in a magazine and expect to duplicate it exactly in your own house. You have to think of those pictures more as inspiration. That way you won’t be so disappointed when your living room doesn’t look exactly like the one from Kevin Costner’s house that you tore out of InStyle magazine and carried around in your wallet for an entire year. Um, not that I’ve ever done that or anything.

But despite all of this, I’m convinced that decorating doesn’t have to be an impossible task. This isn’t the DaVinci Code we’re dealing with here. It’s paint and curtains and maybe an end table or two. I keep thinking if I can just grasp a few basics, I can decorate all by myself, just like the big boys and girls. But it’s never that simple, is it?

For instance – paint color. It can be maddening to try to pick a paint color. The decorating gurus will tell you that there are seven colors to choose from: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. How hard can that be? What they don’t tell you is that paint is a magical shape-shifter, a wily adversary that doesn’t play fair. That pretty green paint chip you picked out at the store arrives at your house and is suddenly gray! What? How? Why? It doesn’t play fair. The lighting in your room, the direction it faces, even the color of the flooring and furniture can affect the way a color looks on your walls. Plus, you have to decide if you want a yellow green, or a blue green, or a gray green? How about a non-fat half caf green with an extra shot of espresso?

But let’s say you’ve already picked your basic wall color. It came to you in a dream that you want a dramatic red dining room. Hah! Do you think you’re done? Do you really think it’s that easy? What colors should your accessories be? How about your drapes?

Don’t despair. According to the experts, there are some basic color principles you can use to come up with a color scheme. You’ve got your complementary colors, your analogous colors, and your monochromatic colors.

Complementary colors are well balanced with a fruity top note and a clean finish. No, sorry – that’s the wine I had last night. Complementary colors are exact opposites on the color wheel – like red and green – and they rock each other’s world. When paired with red, green is encouraged to be the fullest and best expression of green possible. When put with green, red is able to fully express its true redness. They are like those couples in a romantic comedy – total opposites who belong together. They’re the straight arrow business man (blue) and the free-spirited dog walker (orange) who meet cute in the park. The shy librarian (yellow) and the race car driver (orange) who end up spending the night together in an abandoned farm house. (NOTE: these colors are complementary, not complimentary. They are not polite colors that go around saying nice things about each other. They bring out the best in each other by contrast, not by buttering each other up. Opposites attract, in decorating as well as in Hollywood.)

Another possible color scheme consists of colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They are like three suburban women who live next door to each other in the cul de sac of a tidy subdivision called “Analogous.” These are not scheming desperate housewives. They are friends, and they get along very well because they all have similar tastes. They go shopping at the mall together, where they always agree on what to eat at the food court (frozen yogurt and coffee). They agree on the important issues, like where to buy the best yoga pants, and they avoid talking about upsetting things like politics. They live happily, each in her own pretty house, all in a row. Down south where it’s warm, their houses might be red, orange and yellow. Up north where it’s cooler, their houses might be blue, green and violet. Let’s hear it for the ladies of Analogous!

Monochromatic color schemes include lighter and darker values of the same color. They are like those three sisters you went to high school with – Maggie, Maddie, and Molly Malloy. Maggie, the oldest one, was smart and really intense. Maddie, who was a year younger, was slightly more sophisticated (she took advanced French!), and Molly, the youngest, was really fun and bit of a goofball. Still, you could tell from a mile away that they were sisters because they basically looked like three different versions of the same person, with the same hair, just slightly different shades. The amazing thing was that even though they were different ages and they shared a room, they genuinely liked hanging out together. If anyone ever messed with one of them they would have to deal with all three, because they had this special bond and they were never lonely. The Monochromatic Malloy sisters made up their own special little group and you knew you would never be part of it. It made you wish you had a sister you could talk to like that, instead of going home alone after school every day and playing with your imaginary friends. Or, you know, whatever.

So, there you have it. A place to start. Once you figure out the feeling you want your room to have, you can start making more specific choices about the colors and objects you want to use. So, romantic comedy complementary opposites, the ladies of analogous, or the monochromatic sisters? Who do you want to hang out with at home?


One comment

  1. I am covered in green paint right now. Once again, we are renters, loving our new home so much that we are starting to…..god forbid……make it ours. We are on a first name basis with the folks at Lowes and Home Depot, and the sweet little old ladies at Pat Catans Crafts and Lighting.

    We do not own this house. We love this house. We felt this house deserved faux distressing painting, or whatever it is called, so we had the nice Lowe’s paint-person mix us up a batch of sort of red and cream? Sort of? Then these amoeba-like sponges to paint with…..oh dear. Life started getting real. Life started getting serious. Life became getting the texture on the wall absolutely perfect, at one o clock in the morning, with all of our belongings still in storage, freaking out because it was not “textured” looking right.

    It is sort of embarrassing when one’s husband has a feel for the light touch that this sort of painting requires, and you, the female eye, are just a ham-handed hack with the paint, and are banished to the basement stairs.


    Thank god I can come here and find a friendly hand, an understanding ear.


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