The Fundamentals of Understanding Colour

WORDS Steve Smith PHOTOS Dook; Nicolad Mathéus; Paris Brummer; Greg Cox/Bureaux; Johanna Lehtinen

Our partner in our new BHC x VISI Online Interior Design Courses is the renowned BHC School of Design – and they have cherry-picked some elements from the Interior Decorating Core Principles course as a little taster of just how useful this comprehensive course is. Here are the fundamentals of understanding and using colour.

Understanding Colour

Before choosing the colours you’d like to use in your interiors, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of different colour schemes – specific combinations of colours, compiled to form harmonious spaces. Decorators and designers consistently refer to these schemes when curating interiors.

ACHROMATIC COLOURS This timeless palette of shades has no dominant hue, and comprises tones of grey, black and white. They make for an elegant, understated aesthetic and are a versatile foundation in design, capable of harmonising with any colour scheme in a balanced and sophisticated way.

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Achromatic colours

Achromatic colours are suited to minimalist, contemporary interiors, offering a serene backdrop for other hues to pop. Their subtlety and adaptability make them a powerful tool in artistic expression, emphasising form, texture and composition in a captivating and visually impactful way.

NEUTRALS The soothing backbone of interior design, neutrals have a timeless allure. Soft hues of beige, taupe and grey give spaces a sense of tranquillity and versatility.

colour theory

The understated tones serve as a canvas, allowing accents and textures to shine. Neutrals effortlessly bridge styles, adapting to minimalist, rustic or modern aesthetics; they highlight architectural details and create an open ambience, making rooms appear more spacious and inviting.

CHROMATIC COLOURS Chromatic colour schemes can be either harmonious or complementary:

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Chromatic Colours
  • Harmonious colour schemes create peaceful and calm interiors. They include hues that are close to one another on the colour wheel (analogous), or a single colour that is used in varying values and saturations (monochromatic).
  • Complementary colour schemes make use of colours that contrast one another – they’re on opposing sides of the colour wheel, and can be bold and loud. It’s in the interplay of complementary and analogous colour schemes that the magic truly unfolds: complementary pairs infuse spaces with magnetic contrast, drama and intrigue; analogous hues establish a harmonious flow, where neighbouring shades seamlessly blend to unveil depth and subtlety.

Using Colour

Changing your colour scheme can significantly impact a space, making it look larger than it is or hiding proportions that perhaps weren’t thought through well. Now that you know how colour schemes work, here’s how you can apply them to some basic decorating guidelines.

3/3 Vertical Rule

This guideline is inspired by nature. Think about it: when nature is a framed viewpoint, dark colours are closer to the ground, medium tones are in the middle, and the lightest tones are close to the frame’s top.

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3/3 Vertical Rule

And this is how the rule translates into interior design:

  • Split your space into three sections.
  • Use the darkest colours at the base, representing the earth.
  • Use medium-toned colours in the middle, representing plants and water.
  • Use lighter-toned colours at the top, representing the sky.

The 60/30/10 Rule

This timeless guideline for compiling a colour scheme involves the use of proportion when deciding on colours for a space, and results in harmony.

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The 60/30/10 Rule

The aim is visual weight; experience will help you decide when to use this rule and when to break away from it. Here are the percentages:

  • 60% of the space’s colour scheme should be the main/ dominant colour. It grounds the space, and you’ll find it on walls, large rugs and large furniture items.
  • 30% of the space’s colour scheme (half as much as the dominant colour) will be the secondary colour. It plays a supportive role to the main colour; you’ll find it on window cushions, throws, linen, window coverings and accent walls.
  • 10% of the space’s colour scheme will be a pop of accent colour. You’ll find it on scatter cushions, blankets, small decor items and artworks. As an example of how this rule works, imagine a room with white walls and sofa (60%); a neutral floor, coffee table and occasional chairs (30%); and one accent colour used throughout the space (10%).

The 60/30/10 rule can be applied to a monochromatic scheme too – instead of different colours, you can use varying shades and saturations of a single colour. Remember: it’s a guideline, and since rules are sometimes made to be broken, don’t be afraid to do so!

Unifying The Colour Flow

You can’t think of one space in isolation, and creating a palette that flows from one area to the next will help you curate a cohesive design in your home.

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Unifying colours

Even if you are a devout maximalist, unrelated colours in different rooms will create a disjointed composition when viewed in its entirety. Colours that relate to one another (harmonious, or even contrasting but still related) will draw the eye from one room to the next and create visual continuity. Here’s how to accomplish that:

  • Throughout the home, choose colours that relate to one another. You can achieve this by, for example, repeating colours in small details such as fabrics.
  • Allow the same thread of colour – like a specific hue or a timber floor – to flow from room to room.
  • Define connected areas with colour. Maximise the sense of space by continuing a colour from area to area. Each space can retain its own identity, but still be connected to the rest of the home.
  • Connect rooms with flooring and rugs. This works well when different spaces are painted in contrasting colours. By allowing flooring or rugs to straddle spaces, harmony and flow are created.
  • Use the same trim colour throughout the home to unify the various spaces

Working with Whites, Creams and Beiges

These neutral tones are a timeless, versatile backdrop that promotes serenity and a sense of space, and opens up a range possibilities when it comes to accent colours and decor.

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Here are some tips for working with whites, creams and beiges:

  • Establish the undertone. This will help you assess whether you’ll be working with warm whites or cool whites. Warm white undertones are yellow, orange or red, and work well with cream and beige. Cool white undertones are blue, green or purple, and work well with greys. To establish the undertone, compare it with a pure white colour swatch.
  • Mix white and cream. Shades of cream warm up whites and help to lighten up a space.
  • Use repetition. Repeat the same tones of white throughout a space with different fabrics (linens, leathers) and furniture items.
  • Select paint colour last. There are endless variations of paint colours, but limited colours of furniture and decor.
  • Include pops of black and timber. Using these accents in decorative elements such as lamps and furniture trim will immediately ground a space.

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