Light blue walll with white trim
Andreas von Einsiedel

Color Primer

Painting interior spaces can seem daunting, especially when it comes to choosing color. How will the colors for one room relate to other rooms? What colors look good together? What color palette do you want to use?

Don't sweat it: Once you start to grasp the basic principles, you'll be mixing and matching colors like a professional.

Color wheel
© Velusariot |

Understanding Color

It’s important to start with the basics of color theory. Look at a color wheel. First, identify the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. Next, look for secondary colors that are blends of the primary shades: orange, green, and violet. Finally, see how the tertiary colors are further blends: yellow-orange, blue-violet.

Complementary colors are located on opposite sides of the wheel (green and red). When combined, each makes the other appear more intense.

Colors that are side-by-side on the wheel are analogous. They typically look good together.

Kitchen with red accents

What Do You Value?

As you identify colors that appeal to you, give some thought to your own preferences when it comes to the intensity of color. Do you prefer lighter or darker shades of color? Are you drawn to red or pink?

If you like a particularly strong color, but know that an entire room will be overwhelming, think about how it can be used as an accent, such as on a dividing wall or on furniture like these kitchen chairs.

Yellow and green living room
Laurey Glenn

Warm or Cool?

Think about whether you are drawn to warm or cool colors. Warm colors on the wheel are red, yellow, and orange. Cool hues are green, blue, and violet.

In a palette of three colors, use one from the other "family" for balance. For example, a blue bathroom can be instantly energized and warmed by orange accessories. This golden yellow kitchen is enlivened by green dishes and upholstery.

light filled living room

Learning About Light

After you familiarize yourself with the basics of color theory and learn about your own color preferences, make a careful study of the play of light in your home. Take several days, and document how both natural and artificial light look in the room or rooms you want to paint. Take digital photos as a record.

Which direction do the rooms face? Are they flooded with pale morning or bright afternoon light? Do they receive much natural light at all? And how do lamps and overhead lights affect the room throughout the day?

Tip: Select two similar hues of a favorite shade, one lighter than the other. Paint the lighter one on the sunniest wall to enhance the effect of light in the room.

Living room with white painted trim
Laurey Glenn

Trimming It All

When choosing paint colors for rooms that open onto each other, (such as kitchens and dining or family rooms), create a color "cord" that ties the spaces together.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to paint all of the trim -- doors, molding, windows, even cabinetry -- in all of the connecting spaces the same color. White, off-white, or tan are good paint choices.

dining room with Chippendale chairs
Laurey Glenn

Making Connections

A more sophisticated way to connect adjoining rooms is to work from a similar palette. Even with eclectic furnishings, these rooms work because the floors and trim are the same in both spaces, and the browns on the dining room walls appear in the living room curtains and furnishings.

The yellow of the living room walls shows up in an unexpected place: a piece of contemporary art in the dining room. The wall colors are different, but the overall palette of the two rooms is the same.

orange living room
Charles Walton IV

No Wrongs With Neutrals

If you know that orange, yellow, red, or chocolate brown walls aren't your style, then stick with neutrals. Gray, white, beige, tan -- and all the shades in between -- are always no-fail paint choices.

If you have an accent wall -- a chimney breast, a niche or recessed area, or a partial wall that divides two spaces -- then highlighting that with a darker shade from your palette.

orange living room

Wood and Brick

Choosing wall and trim colors to complement the wood tones in your home, as well as any exposed brick (think fireplaces), adds another step to the selection process.

Look at the wood in your house -- from furniture to trim to exposed beams -- and determine the patina of and tones within it.

Is it orange or red? Same goes for brick: Is it whitewashed, giving it a cool tone? Is it a warm red or rust? If you've purchased sample paints and want to test a wall, make sure to paint alongside brick or wood to see how the color will relate to, or clash with, those elements.

-- By Todd Keith

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