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