Embrace colour

Colour is a key component in your interior design tool kit. If you are able to tap into what colours you positively respond to and have the confidence to use them, they offer a cost effective way to make your home more personal.

If you are renovating, your money will be spent on base fixtures and fittings for your home regardless, so planning and managing their colours is a smart way to get the most bang for your buck.

Seatoun Heights Kitchen – the cabinet’s blue was drawn from a number of our client’s favourite artworks so we all felt really confident to use it to add presence and personality to the kitchen.


We’ve all heard plenty of ‘rules’ when it comes to colour. From my experience, here’s what I know to be true:

Rules based on what colours mean or how they make you feel can be ignored in favour of your own personal preference. It is absolutely true that colours affect us but not all in the same way. I’ve seen a bright yellow and fresh white room described as creating a cheerful atmosphere and sleek look but for some people, it may feel like living in a boiled egg.

The inherent physical properties of colour however (how they can change the appearance of a room or how they appear in relation to each other) are consistent and can be used to help shape the look and feel of your home. Just like a dress or a suit with a good cut and in a beautiful colour can highlight your best physical qualities, thoughtfully chosen colours, well placed in your home, can show off its finest features.

So how do we combine these two ideas? I see it as the difference between WHICH colour and HOW colour.


When I see a ‘Colour Theory’ list of this colour means this and this colour sends this signal, I must admit I roll my eyes a little. Whilst a particular hue might signify something reasonably consistent to a portion of people, it won’t to everyone.

Dr Zena O’Connor PhD (my colour research hero) talks about the interface between colour and human perception and response being subject to a complex combination of:

  • individual difference (age, gender etc)
  • cultural differences (some universal but overall widely varying),
  • contextual factors (for example the surroundings or light levels),
  • perceptual factors and
  • temporal factors (such as trends).

Dr O’Connor cites a comprehensive research review for NASA (Wise et al. 1988) to provide evidence-based information for spacecraft interior design that, “there are no hard-wired linkages between environmental colors and particular judgmental or emotional states”.

So if our responses to colour are personal and context based, the overall approach to the colour palette for our home can justifiably then be a very individualised choice based on which colours we want to live amongst. 

However, the application of the palette (what colours go where) is where we can be guided by the optical effects we know to be true.

For example, whether the colour red brings to mind love, communism, aggressive or confidence will depend on where and how it is used as well as the mind of the individual BUT, be aware, it does grab your attention regardless of what you think when you see it.

Eastbourne Green Bathroom – Our client was not afraid to embrace colour which meant we could use the striking green tiles


The same NASA study mentioned earlier, found that lighter colours make an interior feel more open and less small. Here are some other givens:

  • Warm colours (red, orange, yellow) advance, cool colours (blue, blue green) recede. To my eye greens and purples depend on the exact colour in question.
  • Colours appear brighter against a grey background.
  • A ceiling will appear slightly higher in a lighter colour, lower in a darker tone.
  • Looking at a space full of high contrast (in tone, strength of colour and colour itself) causes our eyes to jump around in jerky movements when we take in the scene. Whether the contrast is stimulating or exhausting will depend on how much contrast, as well as the individual and the context.

If you want to create a restful sanctuary, WHICH colour you select will be one you personally feel is calming and HOW you apply that will be with a few other similar colours, with subtle contrast and minimal visual clutter through too much pattern or busy details.

If, on the other hand, you love the energy of highly saturated, bright colours, lots of pattern and bold contrast, think about where that would be most suitable to express, perhaps a hallway or other transitional space that is not intended for resting. 

An entry foyer that cheers ‘Welcome!’ as you enter might make you happy and why miss that opportunity because ‘on trend’ is pared back and neutral?


  • If you are not sure where to start with a new colour scheme, perhaps you have something you love the colours of — a ceramic, a piece of art or an article of clothing. If so, use it —someone has done the hard work for you! Within that piece be conscious of both the exact colours and the proportions each is used. It is in these subtleties that the magic is.
  • Always look at the colour in the place you plan to use it, with the things you plan to use it with. For example, the colour of the floor and ceiling will reflect on the wall, so that pure white might look a lot more yellow when the timber floors are down.
  • Colour is light. Light differs at different times of the day, in different parts of the room. Colours have a warmer or cooler appearance depending on whether the light is natural or artificial and, if artificial, if the lamp is halogen, incandescent, fluorescent and a ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ rating. It pays to take these things into account when selecting colours for a space, nit only look at in situ, but in different parts of the room and at different times of the day.
  • Remember that you don’t experience a room in isolation so consider how colour can be used to create both reassuring consistencies for the whole house and emphasise the distinction between spaces with different purposes.
  • Colours appear MUCH lighter outside and the distinction between shades may be less, especially relevant if you are aiming for a particular level of contrast between window trims and the base house. Also, bright hues appear more intense in daylight than in a shadowy inside corner, especially on a sunny day.
  • When working on a room or house update, gather a collection of your intended material samples (paint, tiles, timber, fabrics) and keep them handy as you go about making other choices. Our perception of colour is not only influenced by the colour itself but also by its texture and context amongst other colours. You can then avoid mistaken memory of a colour but also create the opportunity for finding happy surprises of complimentary or contrasting new materials.
  • Match the scale of your colour sample to the finished product. Rather than deciding the wall colour of a 25sqm room using a 2cm by 3cm colour chip, get at least an A4 drawdown to move around the room or, better still, a test pot.
  • Be brave with colour! Another insight from Dr O’Connor is that, “Colour ‘humanises’ and encourages engagement”. A home of neutrals is perfect if it is a considered choice, but a shame if it is a fallback position due to a lack of confidence, because connecting with our interior spaces is a precious opportunity there for the taking. Most people instinctively know what they like, but if you’re still not sure (you know, that unobtrusive grey you painted your bedroom that now looks purple), do get expert help.