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Understanding Colour Theory

A guide to art and interior design

Colour is the major player in both interior design and art, but what many people don’t think about is its technical side. Colour theory evolved over thousands of years, with artists and scientists as far back as da Vinci and Aristotle developing methodical systems and theories. What they discovered, and what all professional interior designers learn today, is that you can look at colour artistically and creatively, but it is also important to look at it systematically.

The colour wheel

Let’s start with the basics. There are three primary colours – red, blue and yellow. No other colours mixed together can create these three base colours, and if you add white or black to them, you can create different shades and hues. For example, mixing white with red makes pink.

Secondary colours are created by mixing two primary colours. So, red and blue make purple, blue and yellow make green and red and yellow make orange. Tertiary colours are then made by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour. For example, yellow and green make a yellow-green colour.

There are three primary colours, three secondary colours, six tertiary colours and the neutral colours of white, black and grey. Together, these form the basis of a seemingly endless variety of hues, tints, tones and shades.

zing by emma campbell on ArtClickIreland.com - understanding color theory

‘Zing’ by Emma Campbell

Understanding warm and cool hues, colour values and intensity

Beyond the primary, secondary and tertiary colours, there are warm and cool tones, colour values and colour intensity to think about. These are particularly important in interior design, and understanding how they work can mean the difference between amateur design work and professional looking results. As always, art is one of the key features here.

For a basic understanding of warm and cool hues, you just need to look at the colour chart again. The warm tones range from red to yellow-green on the wheel and the cool tones range from green-blue to purple. If you think about the emotions and associations with these colours, it makes sense. Yellow reminds us of the sun and red reminds us of fire, while blue might remind us of cold water or night time. Warm colours appear to advance on the eye and cool colours tend to recede.

Seascape by Ellen Lefrak

‘Seascape’ by Ellen Lefrak

Colour value refers to the lightness or darkness of a colour, so, for example, periwinkle blue is a light value of blue and navy is a dark value of blue. Likewise, pink and terracotta are light values of red and orange, and maroon is a dark value of red.

A Path To Satisfy Even The Simplest Of Tastes by Martina Furlong

 ‘A path To Satisfy Even The Simplest Of Tastes’ by Martina Furlong

And finally, there is intensity and saturation to consider in art and interior design. Pure hues are the most intense or saturated forms of colour you can get, and by adding grey, you can soften the intensity. When considering the design of a room, you can base this on its intended use. So, lower intensity colours such as browns, creams and tans create a calming effect, while higher intensity colours, like pure bright red or yellow generate energy and emotion. That’s why bedrooms should have a degree of lower intensity design and offices can often benefit from energy-invoking colours.

 Out to Pasture, Ballymore, Wexford. by Tony Robinson

‘Out to Pasture, Ballymore, Wexford’ by Tony Robinson

JUNGLE FEVER by Emma Campbell

‘Jungle Fever’ by Emma Campbell


Complementary colours and using art in interior design

Art can be used as a central focal point in interior design, turning a dull, empty room into a finished masterpiece. There are a number of things to consider when choosing the right pieces for a particular design, and some of them might surprise you. For example, if you are decorating a room with cool tones such as green or blue, mixed with a bit of white and grey, you could choose artwork that would blend with those colours, such as Out of the Blue and Blue Sea.


out of the blue martina furlong artclick ireland

‘Out Of The Blue’ by Martina Furlong

Blue Sea by Alex Pascual

‘Blue Sea by Alex Pascual


Or, you could do the complete opposite. Complementary colours work by creating a colourful contradiction of stark opposites. For example, purple is the complementary colour for yellow; orange is the complementary colour for blue; and green is the complementary colour for red. So, if you have a room with blue features and a white or grey background, a series of orange or warm-toned artworks could work as the perfect, bold features.

FIRE FLOWERS by Emma Campbell

‘Fire Flowers’ by Emma Campbell

Reflections by Norman Teeling

‘Reflections’ by Norman Teeling


Do you have any tips or questions about using art in interior design? Comment below and the experts at ArtClick.ie will answer!

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2 Responses to “Understanding Colour Theory”

  1. Jess O'Riordan

    What about using clashing colours in a way that doesn#t look clashy but looks more cool and modern? do you have any tips for using art in this way withiout it going over board??

    • Edith Rohu

      Thanks for your question Jess. Our top tip for using clashing colours that look cool & modern is to look for artwork where one colour is more dominant. The other colour should be more muted or greyed down. You could consider using a larger artwork with the more dominant colour & some smaller pieces where your other colour choice is more prevalent. Hope that helps!