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Colour me good

8 February 2023

Interior designer and The Block NZ co-host Shelley Ferguson on understanding colour, and how best to use it in your home. Words Shelley Ferguson


Colour is a personal, emotional, exciting and truly transformative element of interior design. It has a language of its own, communicating a look and feel without the use of words. You can use energetic, bright, contrasting colour palettes cleverly combined, or use colour to create a calm and soft scheme.

Pay attention to the colours you naturally gravitate towards. While you don’t need to be a colour theory genius like Aristotle, you will benefit from a few spins around the colour wheel (a handy tool developed by Sir Isaac Newton that shows the relationship between colours).

Knowing the basic colour groups is also useful, especially when creating a custom-coloured paint or fabric. The primary colours are red, blue and yellow. They can’t be made from mixing other colours. The secondary colours are orange, purple and green. They can be made by mixing the primary colours together. The tertiary colours are red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, bluegreen, blue-violet and red-violet – the six shades that can be made from mixing primary and secondary colours.

Once you’re familiar with the colour groups it’s fun to flip through a fan deck and see how paint brands have created different colours from the same family using the addition of neutrals (e.g. primary blue becomes navy blue, classic blue, light blue). This realisation of how you can create new colours by adding neutrals is a powerful addition to your design arsenal, as while you may not be a fan of primary blue, a dusky grey-blue may become one of your signature go-tos.

And remember: tint makes a paint lighter by adding white; shade darkens a paint by adding black; tone slightly darkens a colour by adding grey.

Colour schemes

Complementary colours are any two colours that are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as red and green, orange and blue, and yellow and purple. They should probably be called opposing colours because they are completely different to one another, create maximum contrast, and are perfect if you want a bold, clashing, unique interior.

Analogous colours are any three colours that are side by side on a 12-part colour wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange. As in many close friendships, one of the three colours usually tries to dominate! The result is a tonal interior – imagine soft blues and greens in a coastal home, or terracotta and mustard in a bohemian home.

While many think monochrome refers to black and white, it’s actually variations of the same colour. I love this type of colour palette, as you can play with just one colour family to create a powerful visual effect on a room with graduating tones. I liken this colour palette to looking at a mountain valley for greens, or the ocean for blues – you’ll always find several tones of the same colour and the effect is serene and restful.

Understanding undertones

Ahhh, undertones. Just when you think you’ve painted the walls in the perfect white, a sneaky yellow colour comes through when you put your grey chairs against it.

Simply speaking, there are two types of undertone: cool and warm. If you are doing an interior with blue, grey, black, purple or green as features, the paints will need a cool undertone, i.e., those that have had black added. If you are doing an interior featuring shades of yellow, orange or red, you will need a warm undertone, i.e., paints that have had yellow added.

Always have a fan deck on hand as the undertone is written on the back of each paint swatch.

Three tips for using colour

1. Use a colour wheel

It helps to understand how colours work together, the effect they have on a room and mood, and how to use them to achieve the style you want. One of the principles of interior design is harmony, and colour plays a big part in this.

If you walk into a room and the colour scheme is made up of colours that don’t have a relationship to each other, the result will be less harmonious and more chaotic. This is great if you want an enlivening and unique look – there are some incredible designers who mix clashing bright and bold patterns to wow effect. But if you want the room to feel calming, the room reveal is not going to go well for you!

To learn about colour, play around with a colour wheel. A colour wheel shows one colour’s relationship to another and helps us observe the effect colours have on one another. You can pick one of these up from your local Resene ColorShop.

2. Use the 60, 30, 10 trick

If you’re struggling to work out how to distribute your colour palette around the house or room, try this trick. Use the hue that you want to dominate for 60 percent of the room; the secondary colour for 30 percent of the room, to provide visual interest; and the final colour for 10 percent, to sprinkle on some wow factor.

Let’s say your colour palette is white, blue and brass. That could translate to 60 percent white (all of the walls plus a chair and duvet cover), 30 percent blue (headboard, cushions, quilt, artwork, accessories) and 10 percent brass (furniture legs, light fittings, candlesticks). This way the colours are applied in a nice rhythm around the room.

3. Use nature as inspiration

Mother Nature is the ultimate colour expert, so start to notice the colour values of the outside world in your everyday life – consider it free colour training! Think of the four seasons as examples – mustards, terracotta and the earthy tones of autumn make a warm and restful theme. Soft pinks, saffron yellow and warm white are uplifting and inspired by spring. Blue, white and sandy tones are a summer classic and why ‘coastal’ is a popular interior style. Winter colours are intense blacks, greys, white and cool blues.

Extracted from Live Luxe by Shelley Ferguson. Photography by Helen Bankers. Allen & Unwin NZ RRP$45.

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