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How to choose colour

Paint is a great means to making a big change with a relatively inexpensive outlay, even cheaper if you are happy to get stuck in and do it all yourself.

I've divvy'd up my advice into two areas, ‘Choosing Colour’ and ‘Applying Colour’ (to be published next). From here there is some background know-how but still plenty of advice, hints and tips.

I genuinely don’t mean to overwhelm you, but my brain wouldn’t stop dumping all this information out, so if I have to suffer with all this knowledge, so do you.

I hope to point you towards some ideas about how to consider paint to enhance, benefit and improve how you feel in your home and ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference. I've put together some further examples and info here (it's a private Pinterest board!).

All there is left to say is make good decisions, get to painting and you know…it’s not permanent.

Where to start

There are a number of ways to choose/inform/ignore what colour you should use – ultimately you should always start with what you like. But if you feel indifferent, need more guidance (your favourite colour might not be particularly palatable for an interior) or are wanting to learn more about how the choices you have already made then keep reading.

In any case what I’ll touch on will make you think slightly deeper and more thoughtfully about your home space as opposed to trying to copy an image from Pinterest (no judgement if that’s the road you go down though, been there myself!). Places to find inspiration:

  • personal preference

People react to colours as individually as they do to tastes, smells, etc. Your wardrobe will provide an instant snapshot of colours that you are drawn to and already approve of.

  • consider what exists in the space.

Unless you are doing a whole re-design there will be items remaining that should provide you the inspiration or jumping off point for what colour(s) you are going to use, curtains, sofas, etc.

  • the view

Perhaps you need to distract from a slightly depressing non-view (hiya brick wall!) or use the room as an extension of the garden outside, bringing the outside in.

  • favourite artwork/print/photo,

Look at the colours in the artwork (bright orange, striking blue, etc), style of the piece (impressionist style like Monet, typography print with block wording or shapes) and framing (wooden oak frame, black frame with a grey mount)

  • other rooms

You might want to consider whether to have a scheme that runs throughout your home, or treat each room individually.

  • online

yes you can absolutely look at Pinterest, Instagram, Interiors magazines, etc but be wary of gorgeous architecture, large budget, location vastly different to yours and professional styling which makes for a beautiful picture that is hard to replicate.

Colour Theory

I want to quickly touch on colour theory, now, there are a lot of incredibly well researched and informed places you can get further info on this…so feel free to get stuck into all those if I’ve wet your whistle with this overview.

So with colour theory and interior design – we’re looking at the basic principles of how colours naturally work together in a harmonious and balanced way which will translate into your home being a harmonious and balanced place, understand, yes? Cool.

First up is the Colour Wheel.

Moving from inside the triangle outwards:

· Primary Colours: Red, blue, and yellow. Cannot be made from mixing other colours.

· Secondary Colours: Orange, Purple, and Green. Can be made by mixing the primary colours together.

· Tertiary Colours: The six shades that can be made from mixing primary and secondary colours.

So we now have our twelve main colours which we can demonstrate how to pull specific schemes together (don’t worry – I’m not suggesting we all actually use these specific colours and go full kid’s early morning tv show with these colours, it’s just the theory, we’ll get to the more palatable colours soon. relax).

Complementary colours are any two that sit directly opposite each other on the wheel, such as yellow and blue. This creates maximum contrast.

Split-Complementary colours, you would first choose your base shade and the two shades on either side of the opposite colour. A slightly less gung-ho approach to creating a colour palette than just the complementary. From now on we start can to use the 60/30/10 rule – I’ll explain in a bit.

Analogous colour scheme refers to using three colours in a row.

Triadic Colour Scheme, sometimes also referred to as a triad, refers to using three colours with equal space between them.

Tetradic colour scheme, focuses on using two distinct pairs of complimentary colours.

Right, so that’s basic colour theory but of course you’re not going to go with ‘yellow’ and ‘green’ we know what there is a world of variety, depth and lightness to these initial colours.

We’ve been discussing HUES up to this point.

Hues describe a pure colour that is found on the colour wheel and has had nothing added to it to change its properties.

Tints are created when white is added to any hue on the colour wheel. This process lightens and desaturates the hue.

Tones are created when grey is added to a colour. The final tone depends on the amount of black and white used, and tones may be lighter or darker than the original hue.

Shades are created when black is added to any hue found on the colour wheel. This process darkens the hue and creates a more intense colour.

The 60 30 10 Rule

Perhaps the most straightforward, fool proof approach for creating a beautiful balanced, nuanced colour scheme that all just ‘works’. Perfect if you have been scared to use colour in case you don't get it right.

60% dominant colour, normally the wall colour or sofa – consider it your backdrop colour

30% secondary colour, usually found in accent chairs, curtains – kinda like your dominant colour’s sidekick, should be supportive, not opposing

10% accent colour, for the finishing cushions, lampshades, artwork and decorative accessories – these should be the opposing colour, the outsider of the group from the other side of the wheel if using the split-complimentary scheme.

Disclaimer: There are plenty other means and tricks (and some people just know how to put a room together - like Interior Designers!) but you're reading this because you want to walk before you run yeah? Well this trick is the walking equivalent, but don't get me wrong, it's a magnificent walk.

Here are some other examples to get you used to the idea:

A short note about neutral schemes (creams, whites, taupe) remember to use texture (wooden surfaces, cushions with varying finishes, metallics) to add depth and visual interest. It’s the equivalent of the ‘no make up’ look and is quite difficult to pull off successfully so don’t assume it’s the easiest décor option.


Now some more obviously applicable ways to help you narrow down on what colour you would like:

Tones and Light

Warm colours — such as red, yellow, and orange; evoke warmth because they remind us of things like the sun or fire.

Cool colours — such as blue, green, and purple; evoke a cool feeling because they remind us of things like water or grass.

This doesn’t mean the hue of the actual colour, but the undertone in the colour.

This is particularly important when considering white paints …if you want a lovely fresh feeling neutral space you want a white with a blue/green undertone or a cosy white space you need a white with a yellow undertone. Yeah?

North and south-facing rooms receive more light throughout the day that is cooler in tone. East-facing rooms get warm sunlight in the morning, while west-facing rooms get the warmth of the sun during the evening.

North facing rooms are generally cooler and so should be warmed up by using the warmer tones.

East and West facing rooms, get lovely golden sunlight in the mornings and evenings and so are good to take cooler tones.

South facing rooms are a gift from the heavens and you can do anything you like.

HOWEVER – you might not even use the space when there is daylight, so have a look at your bulbs : incandescent lights, which is an amber colour, making warm tones more vibrant and cool shades more muted, and vice versa with a higher lumen/wattage led which reads very blue and therefore cool.

Think Practical

How practical is your choice of colour?

Do you lean bikes in that area, do your kids practise graffiti? Are you renting and need to return it to brilliant white if you move?

Darker colours hide stuff but then again dark colours are harder to paint white again. So maybe something

MYTHBUSTING - white = larger room

Not necessarily. Other tricks can deceive the eye into making a room feel larger. Not putting furniture right up against the wall, pieces of furniture with legs – both these two ideas create small pockets of shadow and space that will make the room appear to be bigger. Meaning you don’t need to use white to achieve a large room. Taking a colour from the walls up to the ceiling or over the skirting boards will give the eyes less to notice and perceive as different areas and therefore it will ‘read’ as a ‘whole’.

Mood & Colour Psychology

How do you want to feel in the room? Relaxed, energised, calm, motivated, in control, excited, all or any of the above? These days most rooms have to level up and perform a multitude of functions but knowing that you want a room to be somewhere that makes you excited to eat your beans on toast or aids your ability to fall asleep. Colour psychology is a lot more nuanced than I go into below – there are a ton of resources out there if you want to delve deeper into more specific colour shades and what their significant psychological associations are.

Back to our warm and cool lingo, guess what? There is even more to consider!

Warm/saturated colours – are emotional colours. red, yellow, and orange, are associated with activity and passion, and even anger/agitation.

Cool colours – are natural colours. blue, green, and purple are associated with serenity and calmness.

Colour psychology theory:

Red is the colour of fire, passion, danger and strength.

This bold colour stimulates and excites, it has been said to raise blood pressure, but it can also be warm and inviting as well as providing an energy boost. Best used sparingly as it can be over-stimulating. Red can be bold, dramatic (crimson hues = passion and drama) or warm and earthy (rusty shades = cozy).

Best used in areas where energy should be high, like a family room or entertaining space. Fun fact: Dogs don’t see red, they see dark gray

Yellow is the colour of warmth, wisdom, prosperity and sympathy. It is associated with sunshine, energy and happiness which can spark creativity and encourage communication. A room coloured in yellow can look cheerful, friendly and airy. However, like red, using it in large amounts as it can be over stimulating and can cause anxiety and stress.

Best used in areas like kitchens, home offices, or dining areas. Avoid using in a bedroom!

Orange being a combination of red and yellow means it has the vivacity and warmth of both. It symbolises courage and hospitality, making you feel energetic, adventurous and friendly. Certain hues of orange are definitely too much in large quantities, but softer peachy or terra cotta shades can be cozy and calming.

Best used for children’s rooms, dining room, home office, and the living room.

Green is maybe the easiest colour to understand through the lens of colour psychology as green = nature. Symbolising hope, good luck, abundance, balance and harmony. Deep emerald or hunter green can add intensity and elegance, while light spring or sage green is soothing and helps stimulate focus and creativity.

It is a cool friendly colour that mixes well with many other colours.

Best used anywhere (but particularly where you want to encourage peace, harmony and understanding, so bedrooms and shared spaces)! And, it mixes well with other colours. What a champ!

Blue is most associated with calm, peace and serenity. Deep navy or royal blues add a masculine feeling, while light powder or sky blue hues are great to use when you need to encourage relaxation in a tranquil environment. This cool, quiet and reserved colour can also represent formality. It is best when paired with white or other lighter hues. Too much of blue can be depressing, so use it wisely.

Best used in bathrooms and bedrooms.

Purple is dignified and dramatic. The colour of royalty, and can inspire creativity and spirituality. Deep rich plum or violet can add a bold, exotic flair, while light lavender hues are calming and pair well with grays and oranges. Purple, like green, works very well with other colours. It’s royal associations mean you can pair it up with other jewel tones like emerald green or even with light, complementary hues like beige, yellow or baby pink.

Best used in children’s room and bedrooms

Pink, specifically ‘millennial’ pink has risen in popularity in recent years – showing a more grown up way of using this colour most often associated with femininity, sweetness and purity but as a trend colour is has reframed its image as an alternative ‘neutral’. Muted blush or grayish-pink hues can instantly soften any room, and darker shades of magenta add a punch of drama. Works beautifully with gray, white and black, providing a warmth than white-ish colours don’t provide.

Best used communal spaces like living rooms, kitchens and hallways.

Black is generally sophistication, elegance, wisdom and luxury, however it is also the colour of mourning and death. Unsurprisingly in interior design theory, it is best used in small amounts as an accent colour with contrasting, complementary colours as all black interiors are difficult to pull off successfully and can feel overwhelming.

When used right, it can add depth and timeless elegance to a room, looking especially chic when the finish is contrasted with other finishes, i.e. matt black with gloss white, etc.

Best used (sparingly) in hallways, kitchens and bathrooms.

White is the colour of cleanliness, and is often regarded as a blank palette. White interiors can feel fresh and modern, but can also be very cold and barren without the proper accent pieces.

This fresh, peaceful colour is used to instill feelings of youthfulness, faith and innocence. It can also make rooms look livelier, fresher and crisper.

Best used anywhere – but with caution, without warming it up through the well chosen decor it can look half-hearted and cold.

Natural accents such as wood, leather, linen, wool are a great way to warm up a space and make it feel homier and grounded in an instant.

Here are two examples on how to apply all of this theory in practise

I love this pale blue colour for our living room:

  • Is it practical? Yes. We don’t have lots of dirty things coming in and out of here

  • Is it a relaxing colour as this is our space to unwind and relax in. Yes.

  • Does this colour work with the lighting. Yes. The room is north facing but we only use it in the evenings with electric lights.

  • What other colours are already there and what can be add in? We have a sofa that we love that is navy, so we’re looking to add in an orange accent with a throw and graphic artwork prints.


“Our kitchen needs freshened up and I don’t know where to start. It’s an east facing room, used throughout the day and night, I want to encourage everyone in the house to get together and chat over a meal…”

Using the above theory could conclude that an orange/yellow would work as long as it has with blue/green undertones.

Okay – that all make sense. I’ll stop for now. No doubt given you plenty to think about. Next up is applying colour and with a super secret link to an amazing Pinterest board with further examples of everything I've discussed.

As a reward for getting this far - here's a handy colour theory cheatsheet, just for you:

Amy Shirlaw Interiors - Colour Theory
Download PD • 256KB

Cheeery byeeeee! Amyx

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