The incredible ability of colours to affect one’s behaviour, mood and emotional state is widely accepted today, but the first records of the psychological power of colour were in fact found on papyrus scrolls dating back to 1 550 BC.
Each colour seen by the human eye has its place in the colour spectrum, according to its wavelength or frequency. Join the colours end to end and you have the colour wheel, which shows off all the many shades that make up the beautiful world around us. This all-important tool shows decorators and artists how colours relate to one another, enabling us to determine what effect a particular scheme will have on a space.
We refer to different intensities of the same colour as “monochromatic harmonies”, while colours next to each other on the colour wheel form an “adjacent harmony”. Colours that appear opposite each other are known as “complementary colours”. Just like the many other opposites we know – north and south, male and female, light and dark – so too each colour has its opposite or complement. Orange, for example, is complementary to blue. Used together, the two colours show each other off to dazzling effect and balance each other, since the one is a warm colour and the other cool. Likewise, purple is complementary to yellow – picture the beauty of a lilac iris with its bright yellow tongue.
Red is the colour of love – think Valentine’s Day – and is known to generate feelings of intimacy and passion. The sight of red is said to encourage circulation and increase heart rate and it is therefore a good colour to turn to when feeling the need for a lift or a spurt of energy.
In décor, red is best used in areas where activity takes place, since it is physically stimulating and promotes movement and action. Red works well in dining-rooms and restaurants, where it can stimulate the senses and conversation, and can be used on a feature wall to give a room a dramatic lift. It would be less advisable in an environment intended to be soothing and calming – a nursery or hospital for example.
Red is seen to spell danger, passion, energy, warmth, adventure and optimism. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that teams or athletes who wear red are more likely to win. It is the colour to wear if you wish to draw attention, make your presence felt or be more noticeable. You’ll cut a bold, strong figure in red – perfect for business negotiations, say, but not for a situation where you wish to make others feel unthreatened, included or calm, for example if you’re to run a workshop or training session.
If red is your favourite colour, you’re likely to be a fiery person, full of adrenaline and drive. You have tireless energy, are determined to achieve in whatever you do and are quick to make decisions and get things done. You’re also likely to be an explorer or pioneer-type personality and a strong leader.
Wall-to-wall red can be overpowering and can even cause headaches. If you can’t resist, tone things down with neutral furnishings and accessories. A strategic spot of red, however, can work wonders in decorating.
Blue: cooler shades of blue will tone down red
Purple: purple and red can be striking and elegant – but beware, this combination can also easily look tacky
Pink and yellow: pale pinks and/or light yellow are a surprising match for red, provided they are not of the same intensity
Green: the best time of year for this combination is most definitely Christmas.
Orange is a cheerful colour, reflecting stability, reassurance and warmth. It evokes memories of autumn leaves, pumpkins and fireside evenings. It symbolises balance, warmth, enthusiasm, vibrance and flamboyancy and is demanding of attention. Softer shades, such as peach, are friendlier and more soothing but can still be full of energy. Orange works well in living and family rooms, entrance halls and office spaces. It is also recommended for a dining room or kitchen, as it is thought to arouse the appetite, aid digestion and stimulate conversation. Orange also looks beautiful when lit by candlelight, making it an ideal choice for a restaurant environment too.
Orange, like red, warms a room but in a less dramatic and passionate way. The mood and attitude of orange is friendly rather than fiery, more welcoming than seductive. Nevertheless, it is considered an attention-grabbing colour and one that expresses ambition or a change in attitude. It definitely isn’t a calm colour. It is mentally stimulating and can be used to get people thinking or talking. People who love orange are generally energetic, friendly and warmhearted. Self-motivated, practical and good at organising, they commonly have a positive outlook on life. Orange reflects enthusiasm, creativity and confidence.
Use orange in the bedroom at the risk of being kept awake at night by this stimulating shade. It can also make a room look smaller and is best used in spaces that get plenty of natural light.
Blue: orange and black are a traditional pairing but medium blue really makes orange come to life
Red and yellow: use bright shades for a hot, spicy combination or tone them down for a fresh, summery scheme
Green: as in nature, this is the definitive tropical colour scheme
Pink: steer away from this combo unless you’re aiming for a psychedelic 1960s look
Purple: a dash of deep purple tamed by mellow yellow or white will create a décor scheme that’s eye-catching without being overpowering.
Yellow is the colour of sunshine and happiness. One of the most uplifting colours in the spectrum, it instantly lifts the spirits and brings cheer, creating an open, joyful and friendly environment. Yellow is best for use in kitchens, dining-rooms and sunny north-facing rooms. it is also ideal for opening up cramped and dark spaces such as hallways. Yellow stimulates the brain, increases alertness and is associated with decisiveness and open-mindedness. It is also believed to aid concentration, and is thus a good colour to bear in mind for rooms where people will be studying or planning. Use in combination with contrasting or harmonising tones for the best effect.
Among its many associations, yellow can be used to denote joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, gold, philosophy and inspiration. If your favourite colour is yellow, you’re likely to be intelligent, with quick mental and physical reflexes. A person with strong reason, you are always in control, yet full of fun and considered great company. “Yellow” people often hold positions of authority or are self-employed.
Because it is such a high-energy colour, yellow is not usually used in bedrooms. Too much yellow can also cause eye irritation and uncomfortable feelings.
Blue and grey: a touch of yellow will perk up these subdued colours; bright yellow and blue make an eye-catching duo
Grey: yellow and grey have become a favourite high-tech pairing, making the combination a fun option for a teenage son’s bedroom, for example
Olive green and brown: combine these two with yellow for a typical earthy palette
Light green: pale yellow and a light citrusy green create a natural, fruity scheme.
Green is nature’s healing colour. Falling between yellow and blue, it lends a feeling of balance and harmony to a space. Symbolising health, growth and new life, green is a nurturing colour and a great stress reliever – we instinctively take a walk in the garden, park or forest when we feel anxious. Depending on the shade selected, green can work well in any room in the house – be it a bedroom or living room, a bathroom, dining-room or kitchen – with soft greens offering a soothing sanctuary for body and mind. It is also great in schools, hospitals and operating theatres.
Green has a calming effect and is very pleasing to the senses, possibly because of its association with nature. Dark forest green is masculine and fairly conservative, while other shades are associated with good luck, fertility, health, renewal, youth, vigour and spring. Those who love this colour tend to be dependable, diplomatic and sensitive. They often have a strong social conscious and are willing to help others, even at their own expense. These people strive for a sense of balance and stability in their lives.
Too much green is thought to make people complacent and a little too laid back. A touch of red or orange will bring it to life and keep you on your toes.
Turquoise: furnishings in green and turquoise are modern and retro
Blue: green and blue evoke nature like no other colour combination
Brown, tan or beige: when combined with green, these colours spell organic
Yellow: green and yellow are fresh and vibrant; combined with black or white they create a sporty look
Orange: lime green and orange is a bright, zestful look.
Blue is considered the most soothing of all colours, associated with inspiration, peace and tranquility. In décor, it creates a calm, relaxing environment with the illusion of space. Colour therapists believe that it slows the pulse, lowers body temperature and reduces appetite. These qualities make it the ideal choice for bedrooms, bathrooms and even nurseries, but less so for dining-rooms, studies and other areas where you are required to be alert. (Of course, there’s no harm in sneaking in a little aqua into your living room if your family is particularly rambunctious.) Blue is also a wonderful colour for offices, as it can promote clear thinking, as well as for hospitals and clinics.
Blue is a cool colour and associated with loyalty, serenity, authority, protection, peace, tranquility, stability, unity, trust, truth, confidence, conservatism and security – just think how many uniforms and businessmen’s suits are blue. It is also associated with cleanliness and order. If blue is your favourite colour, others probably tend to feel safe in your company, as you are non-threatening, reliable, trustworthy and sincere. You are also likely to be ambitious and intelligent.
Too much blue, particularly very dark shades, can be cold and unwelcoming. Keep things friendly, instead of clinical, by sticking to blues with warm undertones.
Green: the energy of green counters the passivity of blue
Red: the hot properties of red balances out the coolness of blue
Grey: blue and grey create an understated elegant look
Light brown, tan or beige: combined with sky blue or robin’s egg blue, these colours evoke an environmentally friendly feel
White: white and dark blue create one of the crispest colour schemes there is
Silver: the pairing of dark blue and metallic silver is elegant and rich, making it a popular choice for beauty products’ packaging.
Purple combines the excitement of red with the tranquility of blue, making it the most complex colour of the rainbow. It is a regal colour, associated with creativity, dignity and joy. Deep or bright purples have connotations of riches while lighter shades such as lavender are more romantic and feminine. In décor, rich purples can lend an air of luxury and mystery to a room. It is best for focus walls and bedrooms but touches of purple can also work well in other sumptuously appointed rooms.
Purple evokes associations with spirituality and nobility; it is the colour of ceremony, mystery and wisdom. Purple, like orange, stimulates thinking and the two are often used together. People who love this colour are usually very creative and like to express themselves in artistic ways. They are leaders, not followers and tend to make gifted poets, painters and musicians, and excellent teachers because their understanding of life is about more than simply facts and figures.
Purple can be overpowering and, when overused, can easily appear artificial and contrived.
Tan and beige: used with deep eggplant purple, these colours create an earthy, conservative colour combination
Green: bright green with an equally jewel-like purple is striking, while a combination of lighter shades evokes a springtime feeling
Pink: pink and purple – every young girl’s dream.
Combining the serenity of sheer white with the warmth and interest of yellow, cream is favourite colour of decorators and chic dressers. Feminine and soft – think springtime blossoms and rosebuds, doves and ballet tutus – cream is an inviting and welcoming shade that creates a peaceful, restful sanctuary. An off-white or cream is also more practical than white as it does not show dirt as easily. Cream is a wonderful choice for any room, especially those spaces where white would appear altogether too harsh and cold.
Cream is associated with cleanliness, purity, innocence, simplicity and peace. It reflects light and is therefore an excellent base colour, making a room appear airy and spacious yet reassuringly intimate. Some shades can cause a room to feel slightly cold – counter this by bringing into the scheme warm hints of colour, such as reds or oranges. Neutral, cream walls provide the perfect background to highlight works of art, beautiful carpets and furnishings, and natural surfaces such as stone, timber, wool, cotton, linen, hessian, sisal and coir.
Consider the interplay of light and shadow in your space as this will alter the look of a room at different times of the day. Consider both artificial and natural light, as harsh artificial light can overwhelm the subtle character of a shade.
Creams complement a host of other colours – from soft, toned-down pastels to natural hues like olive green and beige, or boldly contrasting browns and black.
The optimism of red meets the tranquility of white: pretty pink is believed to be the most calming of all the colours. Studies have shown that pink surroundings calm aggression and it is therefore known as a good colour to be used in prison cells, believe it or not. Pink works well in combination with many other colours and is most widely used in bedrooms and formal sitting-rooms.
Pink excites as well as relaxes. It evokes romance and glamour, always acting as a pick-me-up. Despite being instantly recognisable as the colour of cupcakes, ballerinas, princesses and frills, there are also more masculine shades that have a strong orange undertone. Salmon and coral, for example, are popular choices for men’s shirts. Just like candy pink and pastels, these orangey off-pink tones evoke a light, happy mood.
Pink can be ultra-feminine and sickly sweet. Counteract this with hints of dark charcoal or black.
Chocolate, black and grey: these colours help transform pink into a grown-up, even chic, colour
White: pink and white are a classic combination that is ever fresh and inviting
Cream: cream takes pale or dirty pinks into the realm of weddings and French décor
Green: dirty pinks and dusky greens create an English country garden colour scheme
Silver and gold: pale pinks, metallics and cream are made for one another – think the sumptuousness of Marie Antoinette.