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Warm versus cool

Make the most of color “temperatures” in your home’s decor


This is the second in a three part series exploring color in home décor and design.

A yellow field of buttercups, icy blue pond or yard packed with lupines might seem obvious as to where these colors lie on the color temperature scale.

Sunshine is warm, and sunshine is yellow; therefore yellow is warm. Water is blue, so it must follow that icy blue water – or that woodland carpet of lupines – equals cool.

There are seemingly countless tones, shades and hues crisscrossing the color spectrum. Did you know there are “cool” yellows and “warm” blues? Cool greens, warm greens, and cool and warm neutrals?

Did you know they can work with – or against – other colors you might think should play well together.

When faced with walls of paint color chips, textile or wallpaper books it can be helpful to decipher where colors land on the warm versus cool tone and temperature spectrum, and why sometimes mixing them can create fabulous or unexpectedly delightful results.

According to The Zoe Report website, colors do impact how you feel, and can influence your mood. Think of rooms you’re naturally drawn to, as well as rooms you regularly avoid. Then consider what colors are dominant in those rooms.

A little history

While Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is probably best known as a 19th century (1749-1832) poet, he apparently was intrigued enough about color to write a book, “Theory of Colours” in 1810.

While Goethe was more interested in teasing apart color theory from a scientific prismatic approach, he also created an early color wheel dividing colors between warm and cool tones.

“Some people embrace color and others are scared of it, many times because they don’t understand how to coordinate it with their furnishings and curtains to create a comfortable environment,” explained Pam Lazor, an interior designer and owner of Casa Double L Interior Design in Riegelsville.

Neutral beginnings

Angela Carroll Ast recommends clients start with neutrals, which can also be warm or cool colors.

Ast is an interior designer and owner of ABCA Design Decorating Den Interiors in Milford Township, Bucks County.

She recommends keeping an eye on undertones to balance neutrals and using opposite tones in furnishings or textiles to add interest., a resource managed by the U.S. General Services Administration Technology Transformation Service, notes five neutral colors. Keep in mind each of these colors will have varying shades or tones in and of themselves, which are also separate and distinct colors.

The neutral building blocks are: Black, white, gray, brown and tan.

“For the base items like flooring, ceiling, walls and trim, I would have those consistent colors in either warm tones or cool tones. Then you can add that orange lamp,” Ast said.

Know your undertones

Undertones go back to beginning principals: Paint colors with warm undertones will either include yellow, orange or red; while cool undertones will include green, blue or purple.

If you’re unsure of a color’s undertone, determine the base color. That will help you explore undertones, especially when doing restoration, work in historical colors or work in historic properties, Ast said.

Most color chips, unless they are an individual color, will have a range of tones called a paint swatch. The colors on the swatch will typically show varying shades or tones of one base color.

Color groupings

Today’s color wheel helps demystify where colors land on a spectrum as well as ways to ground color choices.

For example, yellow, orange, warm red and brown tones land on the warm side of the color wheel.

Green, blue and purple fall on the cool side. Secondary colors are created by mixing various degrees of the primary colors, red, blue and yellow.

So it follows there will be warm and cool tones in every color family.

That means cool tones can have warm undertones, and warm colors can have cool undertones.

“Because you can have warmer [or cooler] tones in those colors, that’s where it gets tricky,” said Nancy Gracia, an interior designer and owner of Bare Root Design Studio Inc., in Newtown.

She said mixing tones, or even using warm and cool tones in a space “is what makes things interesting.”

Warm and cool; greens and blues

Gracia shares an example of using blues and greens with both warm and cool tones. It goes like this:

“Chartreuse is a cool color, and moss is warm because it has darker browns in the green. There are different shades, going from a cool green to a dark green. If you want to layer colors you can do a cool green, a warm color and a warmer green inserting a third color that is a warmer neutral,” she explained.

Much of the success of using warm and cool tones and mixing them has to do with layering.

“You might take two colors and not see the connection but introducing other colors as layering can bring it all together,” Gracia explained.

One way to achieve mixing warm tones is by layering different hues in the same color.

Go bold

The key to working with bold saturated colors is: know thyself.

If you decide to use a big bold color but the choice is way outside your comfort zone, you may ultimately be or become unhappy.

“They [bold colors] can become quite tiresome and unappealing, if that’s not who you are,” Gracia said.

On the other hand, flexing your decor muscles by using bold saturated colors in expected or different ways can create stunning results.

Complimentary and adjacent

You might expect complimentary to mean adjacent or next to something, but when it comes to color and color theory the opposite is true.

Complimentary colors fall opposite one another on the color wheel. For example red and green are complimentary colors, as are blue and orange.

Using complimentary – or contrasting – colors together can produce exciting and dramatic results.

When you hear “pop of color” think of complimentary colors used together, or a complimentary color used as a focal point in a neutral setting.

Adjacent or analogous colors lie near or next to each other on the color wheel.

These colors, shades and tones are often calming, soothing, or harmonious and can be used together to create a pleasing effect in a room, or interior landscape.

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