The Basics: Colour Theory

December 13, 2023

In the world of art and design, colour is a language that speaks in place of words. Understanding colour theory is key to mastering this language, whether you’re an artist, a designer, or just looking to add a splash of personality to your living space. At the heart of colour theory lies the colour wheel. Invented by Isaac Newton in 1666, the colour wheel is a fundamental tool that has helped us navigate the complex relationships between colours and explain why some palettes just work, and why others just don't.

Using the colour wheel

The colour wheel is a straightforward visual representation of colours and their relationships with each other. It starts with the primary colours – red, blue, and yellow – which form the wheel’s core. These are the colours that can’t be created by mixing others. When combined in various ways, they yield secondary colours: green, orange, and purple. Tertiary colours, such as blue-green or red-orange, emerge from mixing primary and secondary colours. This simple tool is the foundation for creating a variety of colour palettes, and while that may sound a little restrictive, it can actually be the opposite, giving you some structure to base your colour decisions upon.


The simplest colour scheme we can make from this wheel is a monochromatic or tonal palette. This is a combination of variations in lightness and saturation of a single colour (also called "hue"). This type of palette is known for its cohesive and soothing aesthetic, often used to create a sophisticated and elegant look. Monochromatic schemes are easy on the eyes, making them a great choice for creating a relaxing atmosphere.


The natural progression of a tonal palette is an analogous palette. These use colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel. These might include red, red-orange, and orange, which blend harmoniously while offering more visual interest than a monochromatic scheme. This palette type is excellent for creating a cohesive look that still feels dynamic, with gradated colours providing tonal contrast without clashing.

Some analagous palettes


A more striking use of colour theory is the combination of complementary colours. These are colours that sit directly opposite each other on the colour wheel and have a high contrast. When used together, they can make each other stand out vividly. Think of the striking effect of blue and orange, red and green, or yellow and purple combinations. In interior design, using complementary colours can create a dynamic and lively space. For instance, imagine a room with deep blue walls accented with bright orange cushions or artwork; the contrast instantly draws the eye and adds a layer of visual interest to the space.

Triadic and tetradic

Moving into more complex territory, the colour wheel also enables the creation of triadic and tetradic palettes. A triadic colour scheme involves three colours that are evenly spaced around the colour wheel, such as red, yellow, and blue. This scheme offers a balanced yet colourful palette, ideal for spaces that aim for a vibrant yet harmonious feel. Tetradic schemes, on the other hand, use four colours, forming a rectangle on the colour wheel. This could include combinations like blue and violet paired with yellow and orange. Such schemes are rich and varied, providing ample opportunity for creativity in combining hues for maximum impact while maintaining visual balance. These complex palettes can be particularly engaging, offering a varied but cohesive look that can bring any space to life with colour.

A primary triadic palette
A secondary triadic palette
A tetradic palette
Bauhaus artists often use a strong primary triadic palette, which feels vibrant, yet coherent

Colour psychology

Now we know a few ways to pick technically and scientifically harmonious palettes, we need to know how different colours can evoke different feelings and responses in us. Colour psychology explores how colours affect our emotions and behaviours, and understanding this can be powerful in the world of art and design. Here are some examples of specific colours and their psychologies:

Red — Often associated with passion, energy, and urgency. It can evoke strong emotions such as love, excitement, and power. In interior design, red can create a sense of warmth and dynamism but may also stimulate a sense of alertness or urgency.

Blue — Considered calming and serene, reminiscent of the sky or ocean. It's linked with stability, tranquillity, and peace. In spaces, blue can create a soothing and productive environment, often used in bedrooms and offices.

Yellow — Bright and cheerful colour associated with happiness, optimism, and creativity. It can stimulate mental activity and generate a sense of energy. However, in large amounts, yellow can be overwhelming and may cause unease.

Green — Symbolising nature, evoking feelings of balance, renewal, and harmony. It's a restful colour that can promote a sense of calm and relaxation, making it ideal for almost any room in a home.

Orange — Combines the energy of red with the happiness of yellow. It is associated with enthusiasm, creativity, and warmth. It can stimulate appetite and social interaction, making it a great choice for kitchens and dining areas.

Purple — Often linked with royalty and luxury, but can also represent creativity and spirituality. Darker shades add richness and depth, while lighter shades, like lavender, create a sense of softness and romance.

Pink — Evokes feelings of nurturing, warmth, and comfort. It’s often seen as romantic and feminine, but softer pinks can be soothing and are increasingly being used in various spaces for a tranquil, nurturing atmosphere.

Neutrals (Beige, Grey, Taupe) — A backdrop that allows other colours to stand out, or brings clarity to busy spaces. They are versatile and can evoke a sense of elegance and calm. Neutrals often provide a relaxing, minimalist backdrop in interior design.

Black — A powerful and sophisticated colour, often associated with formality, elegance, and mystery. In interior design, it can create a dramatic and luxurious atmosphere but should be used sparingly to avoid overpowering a space.

White — Symbolises purity, cleanliness, and simplicity. It can create a sense of space and openness, making rooms feel larger and brighter. White is often used in interiors to provide a clean, calm background.

Colour theory in interior design

When applying colour theory to interior design, the 60-30-10 rule is a classic principle for creating balanced palettes and schemes. This rule suggests that 60% of a room should be a dominant colour, 30% a secondary colour, and 10% an accent colour. This formula helps in achieving a harmonious colour balance that is pleasing to the eye.

Let’s say you’re decorating a living room. You might choose a neutral beige (60%) for the walls, a deeper brown for furniture (30%), and a vibrant teal for cushions and accessories (10%). This approach ensures that colours are well-distributed and the space feels cohesive.

In addition to the 60-30-10 rule, there are other considerations for effectively using colour in interior design. For instance, the role of lighting – both natural and artificial – can significantly affect how colours are perceived in a room. A colour that looks vibrant and lively in natural daylight might appear muted or different under artificial lighting. Thus, considering the lighting conditions of a room is crucial when selecting a colour palette.

Another important aspect is the interplay of colours with textures and patterns. Colours can be enhanced or subdued by the textures they are paired with. Rough textures tend to make colours appear darker, while smooth textures can make them look lighter. Patterns, whether on wallpapers, fabrics, or carpets, can also influence the perception of colour and the overall feel of a room.

Finally, artwork selection plays a pivotal role in interior design, offering a chance to introduce accent colours or reinforce the existing colour scheme of a room. Choosing art that complements the room’s dominant colours can create a cohesive look, while opting for contrasting colours in artwork can add a bold, focal point to the space. And if you're a tenant and your landlord doesn't want you painting the walls, a big, bold statement piece is the perfect way to bring your room to life.

As you can see, once you start delving deeper into colour theory, it's almost endless. Hopefully, you now have the basic fundamental skills you need to get going on constructing effective and intentional colour palettes, for all aspects of art and design.

While understanding the colour wheel and colour psychology is crucial, always remember that taste is subjective. The most innovative, unique or striking colour palettes often come from breaking the rules; but in order to break the rules, you first have to know what they are!