Understanding colour

Light, stimulating the retina of the eye, is what creates our perception of colour. Without light there is no colour, and light reflects how we see colour. Because colour is so powerful we tend to look for rules for its use, but there are no hard and fast rules. How you use colour is a very individual and creative choice, but understanding how colour works will help you use it more effectively.

Understanding colour

Properties of colour

Warm and cool colours
Cool - Blues and greens can introduce a cool mood into a room. The level of coolness will depend on the intensity of the colours. Cool colours may also be used to change the appearance of a room, pushing back walls and furnishings and making the room appear more spacious. They look best in a room with a sunny exposure, where the colours counteract some of the strength of the direct sun. They should be avoided in shaded rooms.

Blues and greens can introduce a cool mood into a room

Warm - Warm colours, such as red and apricot, have an opposite effect, closing in the walls of a room. If the room is large, its dimensions seem decreased. Warm colours look their best in a not so bright room with southern light, so that the bright effect of the sunny colours is not too overbearing.

Guidelines for using colour
Nature conditions us to expect balance and harmony. It offers us guidelines for the use of colour and provides us with some basic principles.

The darkest value at our feet e.g. forest floor, the medium level at eye level e.g. tree trunks, the lightest value above us e.g. sky.

Consider carefully before deviating from these natural guidelines. Use the most intense hues and values in areas occupied for short periods of time, such as formal dining rooms, hallways, staff lunchrooms, laundries and entrances. Avoid monotony and treat the eye and psyche to at least a moderate variety. Visual stimulus or relief is vital. Harmonious colour selections are created by a pleasing relationship of the three dimensions of colour: hue, intensity and value.

Using correct proportions of colour ensures that your scheme will be aesthetically pleasing. A touch of contrasting colour may be lively and exciting but too much can become uncomfortable. On the other hand, too much moderation produces dullness. Personal taste and preferences are the most important considerations in choosing a colour scheme.

Think of colour as a chameleon:

Finally, think about proportions of colours. A basic rule using two thirds one colour and one third another is always successful.

Colour balance
When a colour dominates its immediate surroundings in terms of hue, intensity or value, it may create imbalance. If we visualise colour in terms of weight, we can readily imagine that an area of dominant colour is 'heavier' than an equal area of subordinate colour. In developing a balanced colour scheme, it is important to take into account the 'weight' of each colour.

Colour balance

These two colours (1) have the same intensity, but the blue colour is darker in value. Even if equal areas of both colours are used, blue will be dominant.

If two colours have the same value (2), they may still be unbalanced if there is a difference in intensity of colour. Here the darker colour dominates.

Proportion, contrast and effects with colour
Use colour to create an illusion. Colour can highlight the good features of a room and camouflage defects. Different colours affect the way we view a room. Warm colours, such as yellows and reds, tend to advance and make the walls seem closer. They are therefore a good choice for large, uninviting rooms you want to make more intimate and welcoming. Cool colours, such as greens and blues, tend to recede and make the walls seem further away. This makes them a good choice for small, narrow rooms that you want to seem more spacious.

The way you combine colours can also significantly alter your perception of a room.

Create colour harmony with a colour wheel

Monochromatic and complementary colours

Monochromatic and complementary colours

Where colour groups lie


R (Red) = 357-39 inclusive
O (Orange) = 40-69 inclusive
Y (Yellow) = 70-90 inclusive
G (Green) = 91-204 inclusive
B (Blue) = 205-284 inclusive
V (Violet) = 285-356 inclusive
N (Neutral) = Saturation of 0-8
BR (Brown) = Luminance of 0-39, saturation of 4-10 or luminance of 40-80, saturation of 4-25
M (Metallic) = Colours derived from metallic tones

Luminance is a brightness measure and describes the amount of light that is reflected from a flat, painted surface. Luminance is an indicator of how bright the paint will appear. Luminance decreases when adding grey or black paint to either a pure colour or lighter hues of a colour.

Saturation means purity and refers to the intensity of a specific hue (colour). It is based on the colour's purity; a highly saturated hue has a vivid, intense colour, while a less saturated hue appears more muted and grey. With no saturation at all, the hue becomes a shade of grey.

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