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Colour Theory

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Glossary and definitions for understanding colour:

  • Hue: the name of a colour.
  • Intensity (or chroma): the degree of saturation of a colour. Full intensity = colour at its brightest. Lower intensity = a colour mixed with its complement, or with black, white or grey to make it duller. The intensity (or brightness) of a hue is the measure of the ease with which it can be recognised, all things being equal. Hence, a bright yellow is recognisable from afar, while one would have to look more closely to distinguish a dark green from a dark blue.
  • Saturation: a colour is said to be saturated when it is pure, i.e. without the addition of white, black or other colours. Pure red is saturated whereas pink is desaturated. Purity = saturation.
  • Shade: a colour with black added.
  • Tint: a colour with white added.
  • Tone: a colour with both black and white added. Tone value is the amount of change in a colour achieved by adding black, white or both, in various proportions.
  • Warm colours: the bright side of the colour wheel: yellow to red-violet. Warm colours seem to advance.


Most people go about their daily lives without even realising the effect that colour has on them. We are surrounded by colour constantly and it often powerfully influences our mood and emotions. Colours have very symbolic meanings for each of us and they can make us feel happy or sad, calm or irritable.

Colour is a very personal experience for each of us and our preference for certain colours can change over the years as we mature and change our minds about the fundamentals in our lives.

We are blessed to be surrounded by a naturally ever-changing palette - with each season, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring, we get an amazing range of colour!!!!


These are any form, shade or tint of blue and green.

Blues and Greens are cool colours and they often have a calming and relaxing effect on a room. They are mainly used in rooms that are north-facing or where activity is quiet and peaceful, e.g. the bedroom, living room or lounge. Greens are effective in producing an easy-going, friendly mood. As in nature, greens combine well with all other colours and need not always be used as a background colour in interior decorating.

Vibrant blue-green colours are highly effective as accent colours. Blues are formal hues but can appear warm when used with red, violet or yellow.

The texture of different fabrics can change the mood of the different shades of blue. Textiles with a high reflective quality (such as brocades, leather and shantung) lend blue a cold, sharp and intense feel but a thick blue carpet in the same room will subdue this cold effect. Every cool coloured room should have warm coloured accessories.


These are shades and tints of red, yellow or orange.

Reds and yellows are warm colours and they are stimulating and exciting. Reds and yellows can be used effectively in kitchens, family rooms and any area where there is a great deal of activity and recreation as well as in south-facing rooms (cold rooms). Red is a bold, conspicuous colour; some reds are very loud. The presence of red is always easily felt in a room. Bright reds must therefore be carefully and sparingly used. Yellow brings vitality of sunlight to a room. Ultra bright yellows can make a room come alive. Bold yellows are rich in effect.

Colour is the most fascinating element of art to work with. One of the reasons being that it can be relatively inexpensive and so it can do wonders for low-level budgets if it is used with imagination. On any cost level, colour is often the decorator's favorite element, probably because it is so important in establishing the mood and the personality of a home.

We see colour when there is light. When white light is passed through a suitable prism, the wave lengths that compose the light are defracted, or bent at slightly different angles, and are thus separated to form bands of colours collectively called white light.

Colour can make a room seem warmer or cooler, larger or smaller. It can make architectural flaws seem to fade away into the walls. It can help to create a centre of interest, and make the room seem unified.

Colours affect moods and attitudes; they can be depressing, irritating, disturbing. They can also be restful and soothing, or stimulating and exciting.

Colour Schemes

Colour contrast

Colour contrast occurs when two or more pure colours are used side by side. The strongest colour contrast occurs between the three primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Adding white or black to a colour reduces its intensity and hence its contrast potential.
The twelve colours in the colour wheel have the same intensity and referring to colour contrast implies that the pure intense colour on the wheel is used.

Complementary contrast

Complementary contrast occurs when any two complementary colours are in juxtaposition. When both colours are of full intensity the effect is very strong and may be too bright. Changing the proportion of each colour can restore harmony. The lesser colour then becomes an accent and gives life to the design. The proportion can be changed by reducing the area of contrasting material, e.g. just a small splash of yellow on a purple garment adds life to an otherwise monotonous colour scheme. Alternately, one can improve the harmony by using a tint or shade of one of the colours.

Contrasting light and dark

The strongest light-dark contrast is, of course, white-black. When a light-dark contrast is too sharp, the addition of a third colour can tone it down, e.g., if a white-red contrast is too sharp the addition of a little grey will tone it down. Cunning placing of light and dark can give an illusion of depth. Using light, medium and dark can give a three-dimensional effect.
Contrasting light and dark can create the optical illusion of a difference in size. A dark patch on a light background appears smaller than a light patch of the identical size on a dark background. A bright strip between two sombre patches will appear to overflow onto each side.

Contrasting cool and warm

Contrasting cool and warm colours A glance at the colour wheel will show you which are cool and which are warm colours. Cool colours soothe while warm colours stimulate the senses. When cool and warm colours are mixed in a design the cool will tend to recede into the background whilst the warm will appear more prominent. Using cool and warm colours of the same tone value in a design will add movement and life. Similarly, a patch of warm colour on a cool design will have the same effect as the accent in the complementary contrast.

Contrasting intensities

Some hues are brighter (or louder) than others. Yellow is the most intense of the hues, and so one tends to use it sparingly, particularly when it's with other bright colours. Tints and shades are less intense and so can be used in greater amounts.

Contrast of saturation

Contrast of saturation This is the contrast between pure hues and diluted or duller colours, i.e., tints, shades and tones.

Simultaneous contrast

Simultaneous contrast involves the effect which colours have on each other when used side by side.
A neutral grey patch looks quite different when placed on a white background from the way it looks when placed on a black background.
The same grey patch placed on a coloured background will appear to have a shimmer of the colour complementary to the background colour.
An accent appears sharper when placed on its complementary colour.