Article / Using color in interior design

This article has been updated since its first publication November 20th 2008. Article adapted from Mosaic: Finding Your Own Voice (2008).

Color is everywhere and is the first thing everyone sees. As an interior designer you cannot help but to be conscious of color, but how do you use color smartly in designing interiors?

Realize that color is personal

Color associations have been handed down by generations and spread throughout societies and cultures through superstitions, allegories, and idioms. However, color associations are not the same across every culture.

Do you first think of vitality or dis-ease when you think of the color green? Depending on where you live in the world, your answer could be either. Or both. Color associations are transient and change over time. Have you since the new millennium also linked the color green to environmental ethics? If yes, did you hold that same association in the 1980s or earlier?

Color associations are not just cultural but are also strongly personal, which is why color therapy has become vastly popular. Simply put: colors hold power for us. Just think back to your earliest memories involving color. Do you perhaps dislike red because the school bully lived in a house with a red door? Or do you like yellow because your favorite grandparent grew yellow roses? Think about it for a moment…

Ilona Fried. Compartmentalization, 2008.!8 x 8 in. (20 x 20 cm). Ceramic, vitreous and stained glass, glass, metal, stone beads. Photo: artist.

Colors sitting opposite on the wheel are called complementary, below. Each color enhances its complement.

Analogous colors are colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel, below.

Split complements are 1 color plus the 2 colors adjacent to its compliment, below

Triads are colors equidistant from each other on the color wheel, below.

So just what IS color?

Now that you’ve maybe reflected a little on your own color associations, let’s go back and refresh your memory on the basics of color theory.

Colors can be created by using either the additive or subtractive color model. The former is based upon light emission and is counter-intuitive to the subtractive system, which is used to mix pigments, dyes, and inks. To avoid confusion, what follows is information using the subtractive color model.

The color wheel consists of all main colors of the spectrum.

Every color is a combination of hue, saturation, value (tint/shade), brightness, and gloss.

is the perceived power of giving off light and is also called luminance.

is the perceived appearance of a surface based upon reflection of light and is also called luster.

is the name of a specific color, such as “ivy green”.

indicates how pure the color is. Also called intensity or chroma.

is a color with black added.

is a color with white added.

is the amount of light reflected by a hue; the greater the amount of light, the higher the value.
Value is also called tone.


The color wheel can be divided into primary (red, yellow, blue), secondary (orange, green, violet), and tertiary colors. The primaries and secondaries form the chief colors of the spectrum; mixing them equally forms tertiary colors.

Warm colors (i.e. red, orange, and yellow) are stimulating and appear to advance or become larger. Cool colors (i.e. green, blue, and violet) evoke feelings of rest and appear to recede or become smaller.

Colors can be classified as either chromatic or achromatic. Chroma is a quality combining hue and saturation and includes all colors except white, grey, and black; these colors are achromatic, which means without chroma.

Monochromatic schemes create calm and use shades or tints of one color. Polychromatic schemes create excitement and are combinations using one or more colors.

Other color schemes can be created by pairing colors using the color wheel

Consider color vision

Not everyone sees color in the same way. In brief, the retina contains two types of photo-receptors that perceive the wavelengths of light emitted, reflected, or refracted by an object. These receptors are called rods and cones.

Rods are more numerous and are more sensitive to light than cones. They help with night vision, motion detection, and peripheral vision. Cones, however, are less numerous than rods and are concentrated in the central yellow spot of the eye, called the macula. This is why colors are more difficult to perceive using peripheral vision.

Cones are sensitive to color, and people with fewer or an absence of “red”, “green”, or “blue” cones in the retina have difficulty or cannot distinguish between certain colors. However, those with color vision deficiencies can easily distinguish colors by value.

Colors are relative to light

Because colors are contingent upon the perception of light wavelengths, the same color can look completely dissimilar under different lighting situations. This is why a color looks one way in a store under fluorescent light, another under daylight, and different still at home under incandescent light. For this reason, many industries use a calibrated color viewing booth for critical color evaluation – and you might consider it, too.

It’s important to remember that the height and angle of the sun affect how color is perceived, which varies by time of day, season, and geographic location. The cast of a color may be more golden or bluish drier depending on these and other factors, such as air quality. So be sure to keep lighting in mind when designing interiors, including if the windows face north or south and how much light they let in. Interiors with north-facing windows may require bolder or brighter color combinations to offset those long winter months.

If you’re designing an indoor swimming pool, keep in mind that the water acts as a filter and alters how light is reflected off the bottom of the pool or any submerged objects. This means that subtle color differences may be unnoticeable. To offset this use highly contrasting colors.

If you’re designing an interior that will be lit using low level lighting, make sure to use highly contrasting colors in places where there is no spotlighting.

Jacqueline Iskander. Etude (different lighting situations), 2007. 24 x 38 in. (61 x 97 cm). Golds, smalti, glass beads, faceted garnet, glass. Photos: artist.

Color and light reflectance

The same color can appear vastly dissimilar in different materials because light reflects off smooth surfaces differently than off rough ones. Smooth, shiny surfaces bounce light from a single incoming direction off into a single outgoing direction, sometimes causing glare. This is called specular reflection. In contrast, uneven, rough surfaces diffuse the reflection and send the incoming light off in multiple directions, giving the object a softer appearance. This is called diffuse reflection.

Because of how light is reflected, the color of shiny materials appears brighter and more saturated than that of matte materials. You might consider to play with varying degrees of light reflectance to jazz up a monochromatic color scheme or to tone down a “busy” color scheme by choosing matte surfaces.

Objects can also emit light from themselves. They can glow from within due to elevated temperature, called incandescence, or as a result of chemical reactions, called chemo-luminescence. Furthermore, objects can absorb light and emit it with different properties, such as fluorescence and phosphorescence. The latter is also called glow-in-the-dark. It might be interesting to know that glow-in-the-dark grouts are available on the market for your project involving tile.

Color balance using proportion

When working with color, it’s important to remember that colors have strength or weight. When compared to colors of the same saturation, red is the strongest and yellow is the weakest. This means that red can easily dominate a space if not balanced by another color in either a greater proportion or higher saturation. The converse is true of yellow. Keeping this in mind, use any heavy or “off” hues as accent colors in your interiors – a little goes a long way!

Having enough contrast between colors is important if each color is to be perceived by the human eye. One way to check the contrast is to photograph the colors with a digital camera and to change the image to black & white. Alternatively you could look at the small image on the camera’s screen, if it has one, or reduce the image on your computer until it’s too small to distinguish individual color fields.

(Left) Judy Breau. Foothills, 2005.!17.5 x 12 in. (44.5 x 30 cm). Smalti. Photo: Samuel Choisie.
(Right) Virginia Gardner. Soothing the Embers of My Soul, 2008.! 30 x 16 in. (76 x 48 cm). Jasper, marble, volcanic rock, aquarium gravel, ceramic. Photo: Bill Moretz.

Color blending

When complementary colors are mixed equally in a field, the human eye can no longer distinguish the individual colors. This can confuse the eye and cause discomfort to viewers. Try instead using colors in different saturations and/or values, for example, dark green and pale pink.

Also keep in mind that hues that are close in value will blend together from a distance to visually form one mass.

Create a winning interior

Think about the emotions related to your design theme and how these emotions relate to all the aspects of color: hue, saturation, value (tint/shade), brightness, and gloss. If you want to evoke feelings of serenity or calm, try using harmonious color schemes: triads, split complements, analogous colors, or pastel colors. Play with materials that are somewhat similar in saturation and gloss. Or use colors in one color family.

Brit Hammer. Purity, 2005. 33 x 33 in. (84 x 84 cm). Dichroic glass, smalti, glass, and hand-glazed ceramic. Photo: artist.

Realize that your clients and those experiencing your interiors have their own color associations. To go the extra mile, think about their color preferences and associations and what the desired response to the space should be – to be energized or relaxed.

In short, create a dynamic space that will transcend all fads by using a color scheme that suits the space rather than whatever color scheme is in fashion. Your client will thank you for it!

Text copyright © 2008 Brit Hammer


About the author

Artist Brit Hammer

Brit Hammer-Dijcks is the principal of Brit Hammer Glass Art & Architectural Installations. Her abstract works are known around the world, and she is recognized for her distinct style of “painting with stripes” as well as for use of color.

Brit’s books include Mosaic: Finding Your Own Voice, Reflections: Textural Glass Art,, Meditations: Messages From the Other Side and BREAKOUT! Your Pathway to Success, a business for visual artists (2010). Brit lives in Rotterdam, Netherlands with her true love, best friend, husband, and partner in all things, Armand Dijcks of Liquid Earth (

Brit Hammer Glass Art & Architectural Installations
Rotterdam, Netherlands