Color Part II: The alchemy of combining colors

In the Century showroom at the Boston Design Center, the walls are Benjamin Moore “Shaker Beige,” everything else is neutral creating a sophisticated, serene setting.

And what would you like your interior color scheme to be? That’s a hefty question. Instead, you might ask: what do you want from your color scheme? The more one understands the effects of color, the more the effect can be your intention. Some people combine colors with a natural instinct. Some just go with what’s popular, not realizing they are simply following current market dictates. And then there is everyone else, forever questioning choices and combinations.

Colors Are Like Words. Alone, each has a definition, but when colors are put together they modify one another and create a more complex impression. Also, just as in sentence structure, placement modifies the overall meaning. And like well used adjectives, the varying proportions of color affect the impact within an interior.

Color schemes and combinations are all around us and we all have some firm ideas about these colors that we may not have considered. Noticing our emotional responses to colors can help expand what I refer to as our personal preference/reference library.

Flowers are often the best messengers to bring color combinations to our attention. Photo by Erica Fay

Flowers are often the best messengers to bring color combinations to our attention. Photo by Erica Fay

Notice, Feel and File it away. Your reaction can be based on how you respond to the colors of the Berkshire Hills on a cloudy November day. It can be from a favorite

photo in a magazine.

We are told that a healthy diet is color balanced. Inspiration is everywhere. Photo by Erica Fay

We are told that a healthy diet is color balanced. Inspiration is everywhere.
Photo by Erica Fay

We each have a vast library of associations with color. To make things easy, we might keep those associations in place instead of considering new options. Part of our catalog of personal color response comes from encounters in places where we were happy; some remain from unpleasant incidents. For that matter, the memory often includes more than color. We don’t consciously categorize those ingredients, but our emotional body remembers.

Color schemes tell stories. Just as individual colors evoke meaning and feeling, combinations do so even more strongly. What is your reaction to bright red and green together? Just try and put Christmas out of your mind.

The red of this antique Chinese chest provided the starting point for the mood and colors to decorate this room. Photo by Erica Fay

The red of this antique Chinese chest provided the starting point for the mood and colors to decorate this room. Photo by Erica Fay

We associate cultures with color schemes. Asian settings use mainly strong, warm colors such as reds, magenta and gold. For northern European interiors think of a soft grey or white background, pale blues and greens with whitewashed furniture. And there are the bright, gay colors of the Caribbean: turquoise, lime green, coral, and bright yellow.

When decorating, ask your room – are you for active or passive use? McDonald’s knew from their beginning that bright orange and yellow in a simple white area would entice their customers to move quickly to order, eat, and leave. It makes me wonder why using such bright colors in a child’s bedroom is popular. Libraries use subdued tones to create an atmosphere of peaceful study. Banks employ colors and décor insinuating stability.

Take a look at marketing and graphic advertising to see how color combinations are used to make us respond. In a toy store, go down an aisle for girls’ toys and see the abundance of pink and lavender; in the boys’ section, notice that red and black dominate. I don’t have to elaborate on the intentions behind these selections.

A lot of study goes into guessing what will make us behave for someone else’s benefit. We can do a little study ourselves to establish an atmosphere that makes us feel as we choose.

Interior designer Julian Alexander lets color set a playful mood.

Interior designer Julian Alexander lets color set a playful mood. 

When colors are used together, how closely related or extremely different they are drives our response. A monochromatic scheme is an interior where most of the items are within a close range of one color. This can be very calm if the colors are soft, or very intense if they are deep or bright. The more contrast you have between colors, as well as the strength of those colors, the more energetic the setting will be.

Deconstructing the colors used in this room from the house of M. Lucretius Fronto preserved from the ruins of Pompeii, mid 1st century.

Deconstructing the colors used in this room from the house of M. Lucretius Fronto preserved from the ruins of Pompeii, mid 1st century. Photo by Erica Fay

Fabrics with prints are good for this exercise. Notice two different programs. One is where all the colors of the design touch one another as in stripes or plaids. In the other, features of the design float within a field or background color. You can see this like a room with the background representing the color of the walls and the figures in the print showing how fabrics and accessories using those colors in proportion will look. The same can be done with a piece of artwork, a landscape, or photo. Inspiration is anywhere, even in the sunset or an ad that catches your attention.

Don’t forget that wood has color as this pop-up shop at the Boston Design Center clearly demonstrates. Photo by Erica Fay

Don’t forget that wood has color as this pop-up shop at the Boston Design Center clearly demonstrates. Photo by Erica Fay

 Don’t remain stuck in your opinions. What might be a fixed idea about colors, literally set unconsciously in the past, can be re-examined by experiencing color in new and unexpected ways. But you do have to notice. To become conscious of not just color, but all elements in interior spaces, look around yourself, take a breath and notice how you feel. Let the place speak to you with a new voice. By perceiving color in a new way you can expand your ideas and build a new, larger personal preference/reference library allowing your choice of color schemes to more finely suit yourself.

Once more, Julian Alexander shows us what fun it is to let colors play with each other.

Once more, Julian Alexander shows us what fun it is to let colors play with each other.

 

 Note: This first appeared as an article in the Berkshire Edge on January 27, 2017

 

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