How to choose your perfect color palette

While there are no rules necessarily (at least none that I always adhere to), there are definitely some tricks, keys, and secrets to finding the color palette that you’ll live with the longest and that feels the most like you.

emily henderson perfect color palette - stylebyemilyhenderson.com

Step 1: Start with one color you love the most, and the easiest way to choose this color is to think about what you want to wear the most (if you wear black solely b/c its flattering, then disregard that). Clearly, if you want to put green constantly on your body, then you probably really like green. It’s pretty simple. What are your “go to” colors? Think about what you buy, what you stare at in magazines, and what you pin the most. Yes, there are going to be trends in fashion (and in home) like say, the neon trend right now. So the best thing you can do is use it in accessories — and sparingly — unless you have neon balls of bravery and want to do something crazy on your walls, which is great as long as you know you’ll change it in three years  — and there is nothing wrong with that. So ignore the extreme trends when choosing your palette.

I figured I may as well use myself as an example, so I Google-Imaged the hell out me:
emily henderson

WOAH. That is A LOT of one Emily von Henderson to Google and stare at, but undoubtedly there is a color story happening — navy, royal, muted blues, and sometimes reds and hot pinks. I never get sick of blues, they just make me happy (and yes, they look good on my fairer-than-Sissy-Spacek skin). Plus, blue is very calming for such a bright color (think of beach houses, right?) and Brian loves it as well so it seemed like a good base for my home color palette. I’ll start here:

Indigo. Oh indigo, you perfect color. You are greener than navy (which can go more purple if you aren’t careful) and yet more saturated (aka, brighter than navy). That color doesn’t waver in my house. It’s virtually in every room and acts as the through line from room to room. It’s been my favorite color for seven or eight years and I really don’t think its going anywhere.

Step 2: Add highlights and low-lights that complement this color. Think about your hair: You have your base hair color, then you make some brighter and some maybe even darker (do people still do this? This analogy might be circa “Friends” from 1996). But you don’t want them to be EXACTLY lighter and darker colors, that doesn’t look natural, you want a little color variance so it looks richer.

 

See? Some bright blonde, some golden, some kinda amber, and then natural-looking darker blonde at the roots. Now with rooms, you want to have way more dark and light variance that you can’t get with natural looking hair, aka you might want some very dark or very light (white) hits, but the most natural and organic rooms don’t have a perfect color palette where the colors are all just lighter or darker versions of themselves, so I’m adding these two shades of blue:

 

That’s my foundation. One dark indigo, one light blue/green/gray that helps it stay more neutral and calm, and one light indigo/medium blue.

Step 3: Combine both cool and warm tones for a balanced look. What is a cool tone and a warm tone you ask? Let’s look at the wheel:

warm and cool color wheel

Blues, greens, and purples tend to be “cooler” and oranges, yellows, browns, reds, and pinks are warmer.

A well-balanced inviting room will have a combination of both warm and cool tones, though not necessarily equal. In general cool tones are more calming and warm tones are more exciting.

A room with too many cool tones can feel really cold:

room with too many cool tones

It’s a pretty room and would be great for a beach house, but it’s less inviting and warm than I would want for every day.  It makes me want to grab The Bear and a blanket and wrap ourselves like a human/pet burrito. Even just having wood floors or big sisal rug would help warm it up, but that amount of blue and white just isn’t cozy enough for me.

This one is mainly gray and it’s just sooo cold and prison-ish:

OK to be fair gray technically is a “hue” that is neither warm nor cool since it technically doesn’t have any color in it although I think we can all agree that gray and black feel like cool colors.

On the flip side, a room with too many warm tones can feel dated and overwhelming.

room with too many warm tones

So unfair, I realize, as this room is as hideous as a hairless mole rat on his 67th birthday.

For me, I don’t really like warm tones as much — I like things to feel really fresh and airy and light, and cool tones just do this better. But I do need warmth and I do like wood and brass/gold so I’ll add that into the palette:

That looks WAYYY warmer and more inviting, but still fresh. Let me be clear: I’m not a brown person, literally and figuratively. I’m just not attracted to the color ever, but give me some walnut wood and some carmel or cognac worn leather and some brass, then I’m VERY happy, and those are all very warm tones.

Step 4: Choose an accent color. This is the color that you change out, that you can take or leave depending on your mood and the season. Mine right now is bright red/hot pink. Again, it’s what I wear and what I like.

 

That begs the question, WHAT accent color do you choose? A good rule of thumb is to choose the color that is kinda opposite your main color; hot pink is so feminine, saturated, and bold that it counters my navy really well. Navy is such a dark, masculine neutral that the hot pink (or red) kinda livens everything up and adds a lot of excitement. But really I could choose teal or green or big pops of yellow as well and they could look good. I’m just jonesing all over hot pink right now.

Extra stuff to think about:

The energy of the room needs to match the energy of your personality. This is more abstract, obviously. But basically, if you are really high energy with a massive personality and a huge sense of humor, then your room could be more high energy and have more contrast in colors, textures, and patterns. BUT this is only contingent on whether or not you want your place to feel high energy or not. Let me explain. I am a messy person that has WAY too many things coming constantly in and out of the house and I have a lot of mental and physical chaos in my life, so while I am an extremely high energy person, I’ve realized (it was a hard lesson) that I need my color palette to be limited because I’m not clean or organized enough to handle the amount of color that I actually want to bring into my house.

For shoots, when things are all clean, organized, and put away, I bring out the hot pink/red:

But in reality, for everyday I need it to feel less chaotic, and a quick way to do that is to remove the color that feels the most distracting. Often for me it’s the accent color = hot pink.

emily henderson's living room - stylebyemilyhenderson.com

A good rule of thumb is that the more color = the more contrast = the busier it gets. The easiest way to combat this is to start with a neutral paint color (here it’s Benjamin Moore “November Rain,” but now it’s white in my new house), add your main color (indigo) in the larger pieces of furniture, and keep the accent color to the accessories.

 

bookshelf styled by emily henderson - stylebyemilyhenderson.com

This is my old styled shelf above and see how much “quieter” it is without the hot pink? Sometimes I like this more and sometimes I need some excitement, some hot pink in my life.

Below are houses I’ve designed and styled so you can see this more in practice.

Ian Brennan's living room - stylebyemilyhenderson.com

Ian Brennan’s house: Charcoal gray (cool), light gray (cool, low-light), aubergine (warm), silver (cool), darker blue, black, white (all accents and highlights/low lights), green (from plants, accents).

joy-choi-living-room

Joy Cho’s house: Navy blue (foundation, cool), gold (warm), white, wood (warm) and pops of teal, (accents).

emily-henderson-secrets-from-a-stylist

One of my first houses: Teal (cool), ochre (warm), beige carpet (warm, low-light), gold and warm.

And there you have it: how to create a color palette that you’ll love and that looks coordinated without being too perfect.

Some posts take you hours and hours, so share the love if you found this helpful.  :)

  1. Laura

    Love this Emily! (Love all your posts!)
    Thank you for taking the time to write it — it's extremely helpful! I think it's hard to edit out colors but it's sooo important to keep it from being a little chaotic and disjointed.

  2. This is brilliant. I want this blog post printed out, bound and made into a coffee table book.

  3. Bri

    We are about to move and I actually channeled some Emily Von Henderson and am doing that exact color palette for our living room. Just a bit more coral than hot pink, but otherwise, all the same!

  4. Thank you for being able to put this concept into helpful words and pictures! As a designer I often just "feel" what works and doesn't, but this is a much more concrete way of explaining it (and has seriously inspired my living room re-decorating). High five, Emily!

  5. Andrea

    Thank you so much Emily — I think the idea of palettes (for a room, your whole house, etc) is so important — but it took awhile to come to that. When I started getting excited about design/color and putting our new house together, I was just interested in everything I *liked* — but that was WAY too many things (too many colors, patterns, finishes, etc etc). You are right; a pared down palette is way less "crazy lady lives here" — and way more "crazy-awesome lady lives here" — yet they are only a few accents/lowlights away from each other! :) Thanks for clearly explaining this, with great photos to illustrate. You're a rock star!

  6. Lisa

    This post was INCREDIBLY helpful. Last night I was looking at my living room and feeling like it had too many colors. I have a gallery wall with lots of pictures I have collected over the years, and on the other side is a big painting I did with a million different colors. But when I took a step back (after two jack and gingers btw), I realized that one of the main accent colors in the pictures is pink. My night ended with drunk shopping on etsy for pink pillows. Regardless, this posting is super helpful in that I thinking about my room and that the pink should be the accent color, and blue and gray are my main stays.

    Thank you!

  7. Lily

    Can you tell us a source for that incredible ming coffee table in the fourth to last photo? It would be perfect for my living room! Sorry to ask; I don't see a source for the image or I'd do some Google scrounging. :)

  8. I see a lot of blue in the rooms you design/style! Other than that one room with a pink sofa. Could you also put up some rooms where the base color is predominantly warm? Just want to see what it's like.

    Taking a look around, I realized that my apartment's living room sort of works with what you said! The floors are wood and the walls are beige-ish, but we have dark blue sofa and another grey couch and a glass table, and then we have bright red end tables. Then I walked into my room and it still looked fine though my floors, table and furniture are all warm… but guess what – I like to wear blues and my clothes are hung up and strewn around, so there's the balance.

    Love the explanation. Very useful.

  9. amber

    i love this post! thanks for breaking it down.

  10. Crissy

    As a fellow pale blond, I feel like I wear a lot of blue and it seems to be in my house a lot, too! It's nice to understand why the colors work together on me and in my house. Thanks for taking the time to do this post! Great info and a great base to doing any room! One question: what is the brand of vintage double sleeper sofa you recovered in blue velvet and used in the guest house? I would love to stumble across one but I don't know where to start searching! Thanks!

  11. Lisa

    Given that we all read your blog, it sounds like we all have a lot of the same style choices. It would be fun if we could all post pictures of our own places to your website for ideas. Thoughts?

  12. Jen

    THANK YOU. This is exactly what I've been thinking as I try to pull together our new house, but I didn't know that's what I was thinking. Y'know? It makes so much more sense all broken down like this. Now I feel like I can give good reasons for my decor choices rather than just telling my husband, "It just feels right," and having him roll his eyes at me for the bazillionth time.

  13. Holly

    Well…. that explains it then. I have this lovely new green velvety couch in a warm wood-toned living room and have been wondering for a month now why my dark blue throw pillows won't look good on it. (I say "won't" as opposed to "don't" look good, as I keep looking at them and saying "why won't you look good!?") I think I need highlights! This is quite helpful indeed. Thank you and please feel free to keep reading my mind :)

  14. Laura

    This makes so much sense! For years now I've been basing the decor of my dining/living room on the nicest thing I own, a rug I inherited that is two very weird colors (cool and warm). (I remember when my mom had the rug, a decorator staring at it for several minutes, literally, trying to "memorize" the colors—pre-iPhone!). This post totally helps wrap up all the amateur color-theorizing I've done very neatly. Thank you!!
    Now, on the other hand, I know you're between assistants, but given the importance of this post, the likelihood of its being re-posted, and the effort that went into it, it's a shame its in such need of editing. Email me if you ever need a quick, free, remote copy-edit. (I'm a professional!) Love your blog! (my kids love you, too, and refer to your show as simply "Emily").

  15. What a fabulous post ! Full of clever and wonderfully useful information. I love the idea of starting with one's favourite colour – simple but effective. Thank you ! Jane

  16. Donald

    It makes perfect sense, picking colors based on the colors you most gravitate towards in your clothing…but I just can't. If I walk into a store I go straight to the blue shirts, blue plaid shirts, and my closet is overflowing with them. But blue in a room? Yuck, don't like it and I've tried and tried with paint and accessories. What's wrong with me Em?

  17. Lauren D-R

    This is one of the BEST, most helpful blog posts you've ever done!! (I loved the mantle ones a lot too). I'm going to refer to this everytime I approach decorating a new space in my house. Thank you : )

  18. This must have taken you forever. It's such a clear, deep dive into color and (your brain).

    You are so talented at this! Love your final few images – and seeing your work in practice.

  19. Katie

    This is very helpful. It gives me the confidence to be more bold. Thanks!

  20. Adair

    So helpful. I think of your advice often when I am trying to decorate. Thanks for spending the time to write the post!

  21. Arianne

    Emily, thank you for doing this post! I emailed you about this subject and I'm so, so glad you answered it in a post. I love the tips and will definitely use your advice as I start decorating my home. Thank you!!!

  22. Eva

    Thanks for taking the time to put all this information on your blog, this is sooooo helpfull ! It's like you should put as a subtitle on your blog: interiordesign secrets finally revealed. Love it! All the best from Belgium xx

  23. I love color! Thanks for this post. It was informative and funny (I laughed out loud a couple of times: mole rat and I'm not a brown person :)

  24. Paula

    Emily, I loved your post. It makes it so easy to understand! Ia follow a lot of blogs and I am having difficult to choose a collor palette with my husband. This post is helping me so much! Loved it! Thank you!

  25. I dig your post. Thanks for thaking the time to write it!

  26. Jane

    This post was so helpful! I'm in the process of decorating our first home and have begun to realize how important it is to have a clear direction and color palette for each space, but I have no idea where to start. Thanks for sharing Emily!

  27. anne

    I am one of your non-designer amateur readers, and I find this EXTREMELY hepful. When you break concepts down into very digestible points, it helps me understand why certain things "work" and others don't. Of course, now I feel the need to walk through my amateurly decorated house and find all the flaws, but at least I know what I'm looking for! Thanks for taking so much time and care on this one.

  28. THANK YOU! This post is amazing. After your comment about warm/cool tones a while back, I've been keeping this in mind and it's helped enormously. I've tried to describe this principle to other people without much success – now I can just send them this article! Fantastic!

  29. sarah

    very helpful, thanks emily! i'll definitely be coming back to this, and all of your secrets!

  30. Daena

    Emily! You and Kate could be cousins!! LOL!!! I sincerely thought that was a picture of you!

  31. Kelly

    This is definitely helpful, and a good way to break down what is in my house. There was another comment about the lack of warm color based rooms on your blog/show, do you have any of those you can show us? I LOVE looking at all the navy and indigo, and my closet is going more in that way… But all the things in my house are warm colors. I have a pewter (which ended up more beige) Pottery Barn couch. Honestly we got it more out of price and comfort than style, all the couches i really wanted were like $4k and I just couldn't justify it being in a rental vs a place where we will be for a long time. I also have a burnt orange and ivory chevron West Elm rug, it was supposed to be yellow but they shipped the wrong one… ANYWAY, some visuals of warmer rooms would be super helpful and hopefully get rid of the "can I just get rid of everything I own and start over" mindset. Sorry to sound so whiny.

  32. Staci

    Emily- You are the shizz, no doubt about it! I LOVE your blog and this post was crazy helpful, because I love color and can pick the anchor color and layer tones of that, but the accent color has been tricky in the past. I am smack-dab in the middle of redecorating my bedroom and am balancing cool and warm tones. I wear black with a pop of color often, in accessories and I had routinely shot-down the whole black- in-the bedroom look that was proposed by my dh because I thought it was too collegiate or bachy. BUT, we painted an accent wall behind our bed with a burnt orange-cinnamon color and our furniture is blonde modern, as well as the floor. I had grey curtains and inherited a bedspread that is black/grey reversible. Eew, right? WRONG! It actually gave our room a sleekness that wasn't there before. I added a black and white striped throw, some grey and blue accent pillows and it's starting to come together. I'm going to upholster a headboard and ottoman next at the end of the bed in a gun-metal grey. So now, I'm not sure what colors to add….mint? turquoise? lime or citron???? Hmmm… Thank you for being awesome!!

  33. Andrea

    Emily!!

    I´m from Argentina, and I follow your program, blog, pinterest…. YOU everywhere.

    I bought a Blue Sofa and I was completely lost about how to match it with other elements in my living room.

    This post was incredibly helpul!!! Thanks a LOT for all the tips, I will start working ASAP on them.

    GENIOUS!!

    Andrea

  34. Carey

    I love your designs Emily. I makes me so sad that HGTV seems to restrict your talents to the LA area. Can't you come back to your native Portland and do a few fabulous makeovers? We recently bought our first house and I would love to see what you could do.. :-)

  35. Megan

    I am in Love with the blue sofa in the picture above the pink couch picture. Who makes it and where is it from?!?

  36. Heidi

    you definitely need to watch out for those hairless mole rats– ha! You are so descriptive and real, always such a pleasure to learn from

  37. Judy

    Great post! I'm just trying to come with some kind of cohesive plan for our new place and this is a huge help :) You're the best.

  38. Michelle

    This was so helpful. Thank you, Emily. More posts like this one, please!

  39. Kim

    This may be the single most interesting blog post EVER. Note… I'm really, REALLY happy with the recent interior redesign of my island home. And when I read this post, I compared all the elements of the furnishings in the greatroom to see how it fared according to your tips, Emily. Turned out I must have been doing things "right" all along. Thanks!

  40. Stacey

    LOVE this post, Emily! Very, very helpful and timely for me. Indigo is the common thread color in my home as well and this gives me ideas of how to balance the rest of the colors I use. Thank you!

  41. Heather

    This is a great post, Emily! I will keep it saved for future reference when I move and get to plan a new palette from scratch. I also love your color palette…I think mine would be largely the same…indigo has been my FAVORITE for at least 6 years, i love a good cognac leather, and I think gray is the most interesting color. Also, I pretty much only wear navy, brown, and gray. My accent color would be a deep, saturated, warm yellow…or maybe poppy red for more contrast.

  42. Cindy

    Thank you for this extremely helpful post and all the effort that went into putting it together! My boyfriend and I graduated a year ago and most of our furniture is still from college, which we're slowly transitioning/replacing/transforming into something truly "ours." This helped us figure out what colors we already have and love and what colors we should bring into our apartment when we get our next piece to enhance everything else, and I'm so excited to have something more concrete than just a feeling to work off of!

    Here is a color palette board of our living room I whipped up that we're starting with after reading your post:
    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8337/8262978224_c23cc9b713_z.jpg

    Thank you!

  43. meg

    Definitely such a helpful post! I've been wondering about this lately.

  44. Thanks, Emily! This post makes me want to redesign every room in my house or at least reupholster some furniture and paint a few walls.

  45. Tracy

    I just wanted to say thanks for this advice. I've read a lot of advice on decorating, and this is the only one I really get. Even I, one of the decoratingly challenged (lol), can do this!

    Thanks again.

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