Chances are that by now you’ve heard a thing or two about color theory. Whether that was in school or later on in life, color theory has followed us around for years on end, whether we realize it or not. But, do you actually have to follow color theory when it comes to decorating your home? Well, we tapped an expert to give us the full breakdown. Maria Killam is an internationally known color expert, design blogger, decorator, stylist, and author. She’s a pro at helping people create classic and timeless homes they love, and this is how she really feels about color theory.
FRENSHE: What exactly is color theory?
Maria Killam: That’s a good question! I actually looked up the best definition of color theory: “Color theory is the collection of rules and guidelines which designers use to communicate with users through appealing color schemes in visual interfaces.”
The translation of this definition is that color theory explains how color is organized and describes the relationship between these colors. Most people visualize the color wheel when they think of color theory, and they learn the terms that describe color relationships on this wheel—colors opposite each other are complementary, while colors located next to each other are monochromatic, etc.
F: Can you explain what primary, secondary, and tertiary colors are?
MK: Primary colors are red, yellow, and blue—the three colors that are not a combination of any other colors. Secondary colors are orange, green and violet—the three colors that are a combination of two primary colors. And tertiary colors are a combination of one primary and one secondary color, for example: orange-red.
F: How can one use color theory to decorate their home?
MK: That’s an even better question! The one useful fact color theory does tell you is that colors exist in relationships.
But knowing this fact doesn’t tell you which relationships are important and relevant. So the best answer to this question is this: color theory isn’t useful when it comes to decorating your home.
I know this may come as a shock to some of your readers, but truly, applying color theory won’t help you when it comes to choosing colors to decorate your home.
Colour theory is only useful after the decorating is done and you want to describe your colors by their relationship to each other. No one stands in their living room and says, “Hmm, I’ve always wanted to decorate a room with complementary colors. I’m going to look at my color wheel and choose a color palette that does that.”
So, as using color theory isn’t helpful—let me tell you what is. Creating a color palette.
“Using color theory isn’t helpful—let me tell you what is. Creating a color palette.”
There are two types of rooms in your home and creating a decorating palette depends on which type of room you are working on. Rooms with hard finishes (counters, wall and floor tile, stone, any mid-tone or darker broadloom carpet, etc) have a different decorating starting point from rooms that don’t have finishes.
When you’re decorating a room without one or more existing finishes, you need to start by finding some color inspiration. This becomes the jumping-off point for your color palette.
Colour inspiration comes from items like a piece of art, an area rug, or some pillows. If you’re choosing decorating colors for your bedroom, start with the bedding. It’s much easier to commit to a paint color when you can see how it relates to something else in the room.
The eye goes immediately to the soft furnishings in any room to see how they coordinate with the wall paint colors. Knowing what color your hardwood floors are, or the color of your wood-stained bedroom furniture will not help you choose paint colors.
When you are decorating a room with existing bossy finishes, you need to look first at the colors in these finishes. I call these finishes “bossy” because they dictate which colors you can use, or combine together, for your wall color and decorating palette. This rule holds true when your finishes are a combination of colors, not simply black or white or cream.
Once you’ve identified colors in your existing hard finishes, finding an inspiration piece that both relate to the colors in your finishes and introduces more colors you love will help you create a beautiful, decorated room. You’ll have a lot more confidence in the colors you have chosen if you’ve started with the art, wallpaper, or fabric and then matched the paint color and accessories to those items.
F: What are color theory rules everyone should follow?
MK: By now you know that I don’t believe that following the rules of traditional color theory is helpful or useful when it comes to design and decorating.
If I could give the world one color rule that everyone should follow, I would make this the rule—follow me. It’s been my life passion to unlock the mystery of how color works and show you how to make every color choice for your home.
Basic color theory teaches you about color with super-saturated colors, but that doesn’t help the neutrals and whites you are choosing 80% of the time. That’s why I’ve developed a comprehensive system of understanding neutral colors, how to uncomplicate whites, and everything you need to know about saturated colors.
F: Is there anything one should absolutely avoid when it comes to color + design?
MK: Yes, making the current, trendy neutral the dominant color scheme in your house should be avoided at all costs! The grey trend happened during the 2010s before the trends moved on to the current black, white, and cognac trend around 2020.
In some parts of the country, grey has been OUT for three years already. If it’s not “out” where you live, a change is coming your way.
During any trend, people do what people almost always seem to do during a trend. They shop in stores stocked with tile, carpet, counters, and even furnishings in the “new” neutral. Even though the current trendy neutral is not actually truly “neutral,” and is only here for a limited season before the trends change again.
And when the trends move on, as they always do, they leave in their wake homes filled with dated hard finishes and large furnishings. Finishes and furnishings that won’t wear out for far longer than any one, two, or even three trend cycles.
Follow Maria’s blog at mariakillam.com if you want to learn more about color!