Color. It’s everywhere. It is the intangible element that can be the design of a room or the string that nicely ties various designs together.
And paint, the most common incarnation of color, is the most versatile of designing tools. If a wall color becomes out-of-date, you paint can over it. If the blue you loved as a newlywed makes you want to puke as a mother, you can paint over it. And if a neighbor boy does puke and leaves a stain on the wall, guess what? You can paint over it.
Yet color, this easy-to-manipulate tool, frequently sends us into fits of panic. Can purple and burnt orange go together? Is that shade of blue too bright for an entire room? Do you really dare paint a wall kelly green?
Take a deep breath and read on—we’re about to help you unwrap the mysteries of color.
Don’t be afraid of color. White is a baby-blanket—it makes us feel deceptively safe until we no longer know why we still use it. When we leave our walls that color, we try to make up for its coldness with drapes and pillows and rugs (which all look garishly stark against the brightness of the walls). White should only be used on walls when you are trying to create the feel of a New York loft.
Getting over white is the first step. Next, overcome time-worn maxims about color: “Painting a room in a dark color makes it small” (it can actually help the corners to recede, making the room appear larger). “Using a bright color in a room is overwhelming” (paired with more muted colors, bright colors can be invigorating).
Try punches of color—orange, teal, and yes, kelly green—in small areas like an entryway, mudroom, or hallway. These are excellent places to set a dynamic tone for the rest of the house, especially if you’re not convinced that bright colors are practical.
Keep it limited. The call to embrace color does not mean “go hog-wild.” Choose only three to four dominant colors and use those colors (and variations of them) throughout the home. Keeping colors in-check engenders tranquility.
When you do go the avenue of a bold color, pairing it with two neutral, classic colors—black, white, gold, or beige—keeps it from overwhelming the room and allows it to have the pop it should. Such neutral colors should make up at least half of the room in this situation.
Spice it up. Ignore the formula and include a surprising addition—something of a contrasting shade—whenever possible. A hot-pink vase in a yellow room can’t help but add depth, especially if you love it. You’ll be able to pick it out right away, and it’s bound to make you feel happy.
Adding splashes of color in unexpected places—a closet door, a bedside table, a window frame, or a stair-raise—will also increase the energy of a room in one simple step; it’s like playing peek-a-boo with color. Creating an accent wall in one part of the room can accomplish the same end, especially if paired with complementary colors.
Remember: neutrals can be edgy, too. After all this talk of “pop” and “peek-a-boo,” you might think a palette of white, off-white, brown, and tan is the most blasé color scheme possible. But aside from neutrals’ ability to unite a room, no matter what era the furniture is from, these colors also assert “modern” and “classic” at the same time. Not to mention they’re extremely relaxing.
To spice up a neutral color scheme, make sure to include varying styles (retro, baroque, modern, rustic) and multiple textures. Antique clocks, pleated duvets, layers of rugs and pillows—these help add depth to an otherwise flat palette.
Use light as color. Light affects the appearance of color, if for no other reason than—physically speaking—light causes color. But using light in and of itself is crucial to increasing a room’s space, especially in confined spaces like apartments.
In such small spaces, avoiding heavy furniture is crucial; use furniture that has thinner legs or allows for space between the bottom of the piece and the floor, through which light can shine. Then, paint the ceiling with a glossy finish so that light reflects back into the room. You also might try installing glass panes on your dish cabinets, which will increase space by showing off “non-space.”
Break out the color wheel. If choosing colors still sends you into a cold sweat, download a color wheel from the internet. Once you decide a color you definitely want, use one of the following options: (1) Pair the color with the two colors right next to it on the wheel (analogous colors); you don’t have to stay within warm colors or cool colors for this to work. (Just make sure to include contrasting highlights so your colors don’t get too boring.) (2) If you don’t like both of the analogous colors, choose one, and then choose a color opposite those colors (complementary), or use the color you like and choose two complementary colors on the other side.
When you’re picking, keep in mind the room and the principles of warm and cool colors. While warm colors make a room cozy, they also make it seem smaller because they advance on your eye. Cool colors recede, making a room seem larger; they are also great options for keeping warm, bright rooms in check.
Use your eye. Nothing can make up for the human eye. As you decide where to place your colors (especially if you’re painting), test them out before you commit. If your room is unbalanced—if darker colors overpower lighter ones, for instance—you’ll be able to tell.
As time goes on, look at your colors and re-evaluate. Don’t be afraid to paint over your wall color if you decide you don’t like it. After all, it’s only paint (and you’re the one who has to live in it).
Live in what you love. We could write an entire book on how to choose a palette (others have), but here’s the simplest advice: choose the colors you love; they’ll give you natural energy. Color preferences are highly personal, so why would you follow Joe Schmo’s suggestion of what is “safe” or “beautiful”?
Someone else may hate your choices, but your colors will make you happy. Try not to worry about an unsure future when you might have to sell your abode—if the time comes, apply a neutral coat before selling. Your happiness is well worth the cost of some paint.