The Magic of Colour
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Published by TOP4 Team
For many people, the prospect of using colour freely and boldly is too intimidating to contemplate. Yet colour is not only the most dynamic element in any design scheme, it is also on the cheapest to use and the easiest to change if you’re not happy with the result. Once you discover the seductive power of colour and the thrilling possibilities it opens up, you’ll never look back. With the sweep of a paintbrush, colour can alter the entire personality of your rooms, change apparent shapes and sizes, and transform a collection of seemingly disparate architectural features and furnishing items into a sleek, cohesive style statement. Certain shades, too, have complex psychological associations that may subliminally influence your perception of temperature and can even affect your mood.
Tricks of the eye
One of the most familiar of all decorating dictums is the rule that pale colours make a room look bigger, while darker ones reduce its perceived size. While this is certainly true, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are other ways of achieving similar results. One of the most successful tactics is too choose the same colour treatment for walls, ceiling and woodwork: this kind of visual simplification not only makes a room feel more spacious, it also disguises any awkward shapes and ugly features. Use the same device to make a huge, but infinitely practical chest of drawers or cupboard less obtrusive by painting it to match the walls. Similarly, choosing white to make a ceiling appear higher is seldom necessary and often counterproductive since a dramatic change in tone between ceiling and wall accentuates, rather than disguises, any proportional inadequacies. As a general rule, the closer in tone all the surfaces and furnishing elements are to each other, the more spacious a room will seem. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be the same colour, but if enhancing the impression of space is your top priority, then cameo pink walls with a matching ceiling combine with, say, natural flooring, furniture made from blond wood and rich, creamy curtains would be more successful than the extreme contrasts of dark, stained floorboards, white walls and multi-hued furnishings. It’s important, though, to avoid becoming obsessed with this concept; after all, making rooms appear a little bit bigger or higher is much less important than creating an attractive and inviting home.
Whatever your personal preferences, each colour has its own specific qualities that affect everyone. Strong, bright tones are naturally much more potent than light, chalky ones. Soft, subtle versions of green, blue, mauve, pink and apricot are tranquil and soothing shades: use them for living areas, bedrooms and bathrooms, Sunny yellow, rich red, deep rose, burnt orange and baked terracotta, on the other hand, have a strongly energizing effect. These colours are well suited to areas such as dining rooms and hallways, which are not used for relaxation, and where people tend not linger for extended periods. For kitchen and workrooms, look for middle-range tones that cheer and stimulate without overpowering the senses.
In many cases, the particular shade you choose is more important that the basic colour. Ochre-based banana yellow, for instance, adds a flattering glow to even the smallest, darkest space and lifts the spirits immediately, while a lemony tint is apt to live with in large quantities. In the same way, pale aqua and watery eau de nil are calming and easy on the eye, whereas grey-tinged shades such as airforce blue and pea green can feel chilly and unwelcoming in both temperature and mood, and large expanses of brighter shades like cobalt blue and grass green are more likely to induce headaches that alleviate tension.
Aim to think in terms of colour groups instead of basing your choices on the more traditional concept of the colour wheel, or trying to match individual tones precisely. On the whole, colours of the same intensity and type work well together: tender pastel, 1950s dayglo shades, dusty earth tones, clear primaries and candy pinks and oranges. Some of the most common decorating failures result from a dramatic imbalance among the dominant colours: some shades are dark, vivid or muddy, while others are light and clear. A sofa covered in deep saffron, for example. Will sit uncomfortably against an anaemic off-white or baby-blue wall. To complement its intensity, choose a background shade of similar visual weight, such as Tuscan pink or watery aquamarine.
Relieve large expanses of strong colour with neutral shades, but again, be selective in your choice. White is perfect with pastels, fresh seaside shades and clear primaries, but it will draw away all the richness from more mellow and subtle tones. So, if the main elements of your scheme are lavender, sage and mustard or topaz, sapphire and ruby red, set them off against natural materials such as wood, cane and coir, and surfaces painted in dairy cream, French beige or soft buff. You can also make use of the strong affinity between colours of the same type to link otherwise unrelated decorating elements. The haphazard jumble of family cast-offs, junk-store finds and cheap, modern pieces that most people start out with will suddenly appear stylish and modern when you paint them all in contemporary sherbet pastel or gaudy citrus brights.
In the end, the only appropriate basis for choosing a colour is that you feel good about it and it suits your home and the way you live. All too often, though, inexperience of leaves the first-time decorator vulnerable to unwholesome influences. Of these, the most prevalent are fashion and cowardice. Like decorating styles, fashionable colours change from year to year and keeping up with every furnishing trend can be considerably more costly than updating your wardrobe. It’s also true that the relentless pursuit of novelty sometimes throws the spotlight on shades that are as impractical and unflattering as they are unusual. Perhaps the most widespread of all incentives for choosing room colours, however, is timidity. Although the past few years have seen an encouraging burst of enthusiasm for colour, millions of walls are still being painted white or off-white because they’re regarded as ‘safe’ and they ‘go with everything’. There’s no doubt that decorating palettes based on pale, neutral tints can look stunning, but only when the choice is a positive and informed one, not a design cop-out. Keep in mind, too, that pure white walls are best suited to parts of the world where natural light is abundant. In more temperate climes (and darkish rooms) they tend to take on a grey and dingy cast. To increase the impression of light, choose soft white with a hint of pink, yellow or apricot, or be brave and opt for a full-blooded version of one of these warmer hues. And unless you’re prepared for the harsh glare of chemical brighteners, steer clear of any tin marked ‘brilliant’ white.
Another common misconception is that monochrome schemes (those based on shades of one colour) are an easy option: they’re not. Throwing together a range of greens, for example, creates aesthetic mayhem when deep ilive, fresh lettuce, cool aquamarine, pale mint and bright viridian are all involved. Even the trusted neutrals present similar pitfalls. Cream, for example, is available in hundreds of variations – some cool, some warm, some clear, some muted. Sticking with groups of different, but naturally sympathetic colours is much more likely to be a success.
Test & trials
Not surprisingly, large areas of colour – walls, floors, curtains and upholstery – tend to inspire the most anxiety, which is perfectly understandable, since mistakes on this scale are not only difficult to ignore, but also very expensive. Before you commit yourself to any of these major elements, try to get hold of decent-sized samples of all the options so you can see them in situ. When it comes to paint, postage-stamp sized squares on a colour card will not do the job. Most manufacturers sell sample pots of all their standard colours. Buy one of each shade you’re considering, brush the colours onto separate strips of plain lining paper and pin them to the wall. If your favourite shades need to be specially mixed, don’t hesitate to pay for a small tin of each one. Similarly, the swatches of carpet and furnishing fabric that most stores give away are of very little practical use, but many suppliers will let you have more generous samples – especially of carpet – if you leave a small, returnable deposit. Again, if small fabric cuttings are all that’s on offer, invest in lengths of two or three metres that you can tuck over a curtain rail or drape across a chair. When your samples are in place, leave them there for a week or two so that you can see how each one looks throughout the day, and in different lights. You will find that living with the alternatives over a period of time lead you almost unconsciously towards your final choice.