COLOUR science, theory & atmosphere

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

I think many of us are frightened of colour. We’re frightened of using it in our homes because we think we might get it wrong. So we play it safe and stick with neutral colours. That’s fine if neutral schemes rock your boat but some of us are lusting after colour. Some of us wish we were brave enough to try something different.

Colour is very powerful. Imagine if we lived our lives in black, white and grey. How would we express ourselves without colour? A red dress says ‘look at me’ while corporate suits of blue or grey help us blend in, be part of the team. How would nature be without colour? If there was no bright blue sky, zinging green leaves or warm yellow sun. Just writing those descriptive words for colour gives a sense of well-being.

Colour is a three dimensional process, its science, its complicated but that’s what makes it exciting. We all see (or is that sense) colour differently and that’s down in part to our individual genes which simply put make the mosaic of red, blue and green cones and rods at the back of our eye’s retina vary minutely from person to person. To see colour there must be light. When light shines on an object some of it is absorbed and some reflected. Our eyes see the reflected light.

Where you are in relation to a colour effects what you see. Our field of vision is the size of a thumb nail at arm’s length. That’s tiny. Plus our life experience preconditions us to see certain things as particular colours so bananas are yellow even if they are coloured blue, red or green.

The Colour Wheel

We can’t consider this whole huge subject without mention of the Colour Wheel. Conventionally this is made up of twelve colours also referred to as hues. These are three Primary colours - red, blue and yellow from which are created three Secondary colours - orange, green and purple. The remaining six colours are known as Tertiary colours, these are made by combining Primary and Secondary colours to create hues such as lime green, turquoise, magenta pink and so on.

The Colour Wheel

It’s clear from the Colour Wheel that half are cool colours whilst the other half are warm. Also we can see that colours that sit opposite on the colour wheel complement each other, red/ green for instance when used together intensify each other.

You will have realised that black, white and grey are not on the colour wheel however, they do have an important role to play in creating Shades, Tints and Tones. Let’s start with black when you add this to a hue from the colour wheel the result is a richer, darker more intense version of the colour the Shade. Adding white creates the Tint of a colour a lighter, desaturated and less intense form of the colour the direct opposite of adding black. The resulting pastel colours are calmer and quieter.

This brings us to grey, a combination of black and white. Depending on how much black or white makes up the grey the resulting Tone of a colour can be lighter or darker and may be less saturated or intense than the original hue.

Seasonal colour groups

How do you want your space to feel? Can you find words to describe that feeling? Some interior and brand stylists use seasonal personalities with descriptive words to define a style or mood for a space. For instance: -

Spring fresh | upbeat | alive | light | cool | sparkle

Summer relaxed | natural | soft | faded | muted | subtle

Autumn welcoming | passionate | rich | textured | cosy

Winter dramatic | glamorous | sharp | cool | stylish

This colour harmonising was originally developed in the 1920s by Johannes Itten a colour theorist who taught at the Bauhaus School. Maybe you will find that approach useful but what interests me most is the words. Ignoring the personality groupings and using only the words can you describe how do you want your space to feel? E.g. fresh | natural | light | cosy.

Seasonal colour groups are also used by personal colour consultants to define an individual’s palette for clothes, accessories, jewellery and make up. People who have identified their ‘season’ often find they use the same shades, tones and tints of colour to decorate their homes with. These colour make them feel good when they wear them and easily translate to create an atmosphere they can live with.

Interaction of Colour

Josef Albers 'Homage to the Square'

Another fascinating theory of colour is the influence that colour has on colour. This way of looking at how colours relate to each other, developed by another teacher of the Bauhaus School Josef Albers, is very helpful in understanding successful colour schemes. Interaction of Colour was published in 1963 and shares the group of experiments Albers’ developed to support his theory. His series of paintings ‘Homage to the Square’ produced between 1949 – 1976 demonstrates his ideas that "Every perception of colour is an illusion...we do not see colours as they really are. In our perception they alter one another." (c.1949, when Albers started his first 'Homage to the Square' paintings) Albers’ Homage to the Square series consists of more than 2000 paintings featuring 3 or 4 squares, in the same proportion and order nested inside each other, regardless of the overall size of the painting. Each painting features different colours and combinations of colours demonstrating how colour is influenced by colour. We can use this theory; by layering colour, for instance on a Mood Board, we can start to see this interaction of colour at work.

Developing colour schemes

Complementary green red scheme


There are a variety of recognised colour schemes that can be put together. We’ve already talked about the colours opposite each other on the colour wheel, the Complementary colours. These are dynamic colour combinations that demand attention. They are a great way to work with cool and warm colours together; blue with orange or green to anchor red, as in this image. Complementary interior schemes can be too overwhelming in a room so it may be necessary to adjust the proportions or introduce neutrals to balance the overall appearance. If you already have a neutral colour scheme but would like to add some colour try accessories in complementary colours.


Easier to work with are Analogous colours. These are the three colours that sit to the left or to the right of any given colour on the colour wheel. For instance; yellow | yellow-orange | orange | red-orange or blue | blue-violet | violet | red-violet. There’s a simplicity in Analogous schemes especially if you like working with bright colours, if you keep the saturation of colours the same offset with white to create a crisp scheme. Alternatively a neutral colour such as grey will act as a backdrop to bold colours grounding them in the scheme.

Analogous colour scheme


Monochromatic schemes are often mistaken as being purely black and white but mono means one so a single colour is a true monochrome scheme. That can be boring to live with but it easy to introduce pattern to the mix if you’re matching one colour and if you use different Shades, Tones and Tints of your chosen colour it starts to get interesting. Add in shiny surfaces, wood and a neutral you’re on to a winner.

Blue monochrome scheme

This is a brief introduction to the science and theory of colour. The theories act as a good starting point for considering working with colour but I wouldn’t recommend following them slavishly. Colour creates atmosphere bringing interior schemes to life. Play with different combinations, proportions and textures on a Mood Board to see what works for you, be brave. In our next Blog we will explore COLOUR making it work in your home. As we will learn there are no rules just infinite possibilities.

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