Color is something we take for granted. Most of us get to enjoy it without a second thought. Until you want to include some into your home. Suddenly the questions start. What is color? Where does it come from? What is the difference between tint and shade? How do you know if colors go together? What the heck is an undertone? Why isn’t blue just blue?
Whoa there! Before you go dizzy, let’s go over a few elements of Color Theory and simplify them!
The science behind color is so fascinating. Have you heard that we all see the same color differently? This is because our eyes process the light being reflected or being absorbed by an object in different amounts. Cherry red likely looks different to me than it does to you. Color is at its most basic level, just different lengths of light waves! Boom. It all comes full circle for a reason.
If you look at a color wheel you’ll notice that red and violet are side by side. Red is the longest wavelength of light that we can see. Violet happens to be the shortest wavelength of light that we can see. That’s why when we see a rainbow it starts red and ends violet as it fades, or rather as it changes into wavelengths that are not visible to our eyes. Infrared and Ultra Violet are wavelengths of light that fall outside of what’s visible to us. Mind blown!
While you are thinking over that, here’s a few more. A hue refers to any main color on the wheel. In kindergarten, we are taught that they are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Adding black to a color creates darker shades of the hue while adding white creates lighter tints of the hue. If you add both black and white then you are creating tones of the hue, or graying them out.
Color Wheel and Value Scale
There is an entire system out there for measuring color! Every color we can see has a numerical value based on this system. The visual representation of this system is seriously stunning. Scientifically, white and black are not colors but are instead the presence or absence of light, respectively. So really, tints reflect more light, and shades absorb more light. Crazy, right? The lightness or darkness of a hue is the color value. Every color has its own scale on which the color value is placed; the lighter the color, the higher the value.
Along with that, colors have a temperature value too. They can be warm, neutral, or cool. The wheel can be divided in half, with the warms on one side, and the cools on the other. Reds, oranges, and yellows fall into the warm zone. Blues, greens, and violets are in the cool zone. True neutrals don’t present one temperature value over the other.
Color theory is so fascinating, but I know it can be overwhelming. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole! Artists and designers use the main color wheel for most intents and purposes. My further explanations will use color as a pigment, such as paint, instead of light.
There are three basic colors: Red, Yellow, Blue. If you open up your printer, you’ll see only these pigments in your ink cartridges for a reason. They are the founding colors, the building blocks of the wheel. Other colors are made up from different combinations and amounts of these three. Along with black and white for shading and tinting.
On a color wheel, there is a hue in between the primary colors. Adding two pure primary colors will give you their secondary color. These are Orange (red and yellow), Green (yellow and blue), and Violet (Blue and Red). To get their purest mix, you would want to add equal amounts of two primary colors. If you vary the amount of primary then you’ll end up with a tertiary color.
In between the primary and secondary colors are even more mixed colors, called tertiary colors. These are your dual-named colors such as Red-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green. Their name is always led by the primary color. We usually give them unique names though such as vermilion, lime, or teal. These have a bit more of one primary than the other, instead of being an even mix of two primary colors. This is where we can really play around with different amounts of pigment to get that perfect sage green you are looking for!
Undertones can be tricky to figure out. Every color has an undertone, if it’s not a pure red, blue or yellow, since they are a mix of colors. Even white and black can have undertones. Undertones are caused by the secondary hues influencing the overall look of the main color, or mass tone. The undertone is what makes an aqua blue different from a teal blue. Not sure what undertones are in the paint color you’ve been eyeing up? Compare it to the pure version of the hue or a pure white and see what other colors stand out. If you are trying to create a cohesive space and using multiple colors, try to keep the undertones the same or of a similar value so they don’t look off-balanced.
There are some tried and true color schemes already at your disposal. The are Complementary, Triadic, Analogous, Split-Complementary, Tetradic, and Square schemes. They are formed using by creating different zones on the wheel. These schemes are used over and over in various ways and are guaranteed to work together.
Complementary colors are directly across from one another on the color wheel. They are opposites. They compete for attention, yet also emphasize the other. The basic ones are Red and Green, Blue and Orange, Yellow and Violet. I’ll include Black and White because they are opposites and considered complementary even though they are technically not colors. Fun fact: mixing two complementary colors together will get you a murky brown!
Triadic schemes use three colors that are evenly spaced around the wheel. They can be your primaries (RYB), your secondaries (OGV) or a mix of the tertiaries, as long as they are evenly spaced out from one another on the wheel. It’s probably good to point out that trios tend to be the most visually appealing number in a grouping so triadic schemes fit the bill great. Trios create a great sense of balance. Or pick one hue to be the main focus and use the other two as accents to shake things up a bit.
Looking for a calming atmosphere? This is probably the one for you. Analogous schemes use the same hue but in varying values. If your favorite color is blue, then you could use navy, teal, and aquamarine together as your analogous scheme. Since the underlying hue is the same, the overall look comes across as relaxing.
Do you love red but are not so keen on a Christmas scheme? You can split it up! This scheme involves grabbing the two neighboring colors from a complementary color instead of the exact complement. So red would be complemented with blue-green and yellow-green instead. This way you get the strong contrast, but no holiday theme.
Can’t narrow it down to three? Four colors work for tetradic scheme! You are creating a rectangle on the wheel. This is essentially using two complementary color schemes in the same space and making it work. That’s why this scheme is also called a double complementary. The secret to making this style work is to pick one color to stand out and use the other three as supporting colors. Pay attention to the balance between warm and cool hues too. The use of a good neutral tone will also keep this scheme from giving you a color overload.
Similar idea to the tetradic, except instead of a rectangle you are creating a square on the wheel. These four colors are evenly spaced out around the wheel to create the ultimate balanced scheme. Each warm color is balanced by its opposite cool color. It’s often best to used tints or shades of your hue choices to create a more harmonious scheme instead of a competition for attention.
The Finish Line
There you have it! This is my breakdown guide to using a color wheel in your home. It was a bit more like a crash course in color theory, and schemes so I am sure your head is just swimming with info! Don’t worry if you can’t absorb it all in one go. You can always come back here and reference it as you go along.
If you are just getting started on your decorating journey, and not sure if you even want to think about color yet, check out my post about Finding Your Design Style. This will help get you going in the right direction! We all had to start somewhere!