Making Color Choices

Welcome to the eighth of a series of short articles about color: Learning about color, choosing colors, living with color, and color around the world. This month: Considerations in making color choices – color doesn’t exist independently!

STANDING AT THE ENTRANCE of a room and asking ourselves what color it should be is like sitting in a restaurant and looking at a too-big menu. Why do we think we should know what color to pick without doing some serious perusing first?

Selecting the colors we want for our homes becomes easier when we take into account a few things designers know and other people rarely think about. First, color does not exist independently. It coexists with scale, lighting and overall proportional interconnection, or what is often referred to as a hierarchical system. Let’s consider these three elements one at a time.

Scale is not just how big the furniture should be. It is the sensation our bodies feel in the spaces surrounding us. Lighting, more than a collection of lamps, is the balance of all the sources of illumination—indoor and outdoor, natural and man-made—modulated by pools, shadows and sparkle, adding up to the overall ambience.

A hierarchical system is the proportional underpinning that connects all the elements throughout a house. That includes the ratios among shapes, volumes and planes, of moldings to walls, of hallways to bedrooms, of doors to ceiling heights, of areas of wood to areas of plaster. You might think of a hierarchical system—the rhythm of proportional relationships—as the music of architecture. And it is these architectural elements that help tell us what colors best serve.

In order to make good color choices it is useful to gather information about scale, lighting and hierarchical systems.

Most people think they want every room to be light, failing to comprehend the nest-like pleasure of darkness. But unless you live in a one-room apartment, inevitably you will have both darker and lighter spaces. You might imagine that a darker room should get the lighter color. But by adjusting the paint values to match the actual values and scale ratios of the rooms, an impression of light and space can be created. Paint a small foyer darker than the larger adjoining room, and the larger room will seem even grander. Give a darker room the darker color, and both spaces will intuitively feel right. Astutely distributing color is a great way to play with scale.

A sense of scale is determined in part by intervals of value—that is, by the size of the steps from light to dark. The difference between a light white and a darker off-white, for example, can clarify the relationships between ceilings of different heights. If a house has higher and lower ceilings mixed throughout (usually more of the lower ones are on upper floors), painting all the higher ceilings darker than the lower ones creates a connective tissue and provides a subliminal balance even though we never see all the ceilings at once.

We always need to be on the lookout for the possibility of using colors on common elements throughout a series of rooms. Then the uncommon elements become more telling. Ask yourselves if the house needs more than one great white, neutral, or color. Why have a second or third color – do the rooms and architecture ask for it? Does the trim really have to be lighter than the wall? Exercising discipline makes every color count.

Colors need a reflective surface in order to be visible. This is a phenomenon of nature. In the same way that we see a clear sky as blue because the light is stopped in its path and scattered by air molecules and water droplets, all the color we see in our homes is a result of the way light is altered by the architecture of a room’s walls and trim. The planes, corners, edges of door frames and every high-low difference cause light to be interrupted and to create various shades of color in the shadows. Even if everything were painted the same color, variations would persist.

Identifying where boundaries stop and start provides crucial information. To become more sensitive to the ways these boundaries interrupt light and cause light to reveal its color messages, you might try tracking a surface with your eyes as if they were a brush applying paint. Do this and you may notice how difficult it is to stop a color once it gets started. Trim can be especially hard to contain. Imagine a baseboard in an entry hail heading toward the living room. If the passage is an opening without a door, as is often the case, it’s easier to let the two spaces share a common molding color. Otherwise, you need to decide which of the two different shades belongs on the inner surface of the portal. Does the putty-colored entry trim stay in the entry, for example, or merge into the marigold living room? For better or for worse, “paint break” issues can sometimes control an entire color scheme.

Tracking the surfaces visually as if your eyes were a paintbrush can also tell you a great deal about how spaces work. This exercise is particularly revealing when applied to crown molding. For example, picture the same white paint on both the crown and the door and window frames. That would seem to promote continuity…but, if the ceilings are low and the crown is small and undistinguished, the molding might look too bright and narrow. A subtler and more successful transition could be achieved by carrying the wall color up over the molding.

Everyone has a wide range of tastes and disparate architectural preferences, yet one goal is common is to make spaces feel luminous. In manipulating color to create light, we have to remember that, like color, perceived luminance is relative. It has nothing to do with how much candlepower there is but rather with how we adjust the range of brightness.

Have you ever noticed that darker spaces often seem dingy when painted white?

Most people assume that to make a dark space feel light, they need to paint it white. Actually, though, making a space appear full of light is different from making it light. Have you ever noticed that darker spaces often seem dingy? But paint the same room yellow, and it feels sunny. We instinctively imagine a space is full of light when we are surrounded by yellow. This isn’t only because we’ve come to read yellow as sunshine but because our eyes’ receptor cells need more light to see warmer colors than they do to view cooler ones. Conversely if that same dimly lit room is painted a blue that’s no darker than the yellow, the space automatically feels darker. For that reason, many people rightly believe blue bedrooms induce sleep.

Spaces can be made to feel lighter without using lighter colors. Obviously, light beige creates a lighter room than dark beige would, and because it absorbs more light, forest green makes a library moodier than if it were painted apple green. Yet people are rarely conscious of another dynamic at work: Warm colors appear to be sources of light.

Yellow isn’t the only hue that seems to send out its own light. All warmer colors evoke this sensation. For instance, a dark coral can make a room with scant illumination appear to glow, while a pale neutral in a room with twice as much candlepower may never signal a feeling of brightness.

The essential fact of color is that it doesn’t exist independently. Or to put it another way, color depends on context. If you allow yourself time to notice the elements around you—if you ask yourself, What am I seeing, those elements will reveal the answers. Paradoxically, the most effective and pleasurable way to select colors is to put off your decision-making and just experience the space.


Future topics of interest …
Color and Art
Color around the world

Cynthia Peacock is a professional Interior Designer (member of the American Society of Interior designers, ASID) and Principal of her own design firm, PEACOCK Interior Design, LLC. Cynthia has worked on a wide variety of outstanding projects (residences, offices, hotels, ships) in her 16 year career as an Interior Designer, and finds that color is the constant challenge, joy, and reward. If you are color-challenged, and need gentle guidance, Cynthia may be contacted