There aren’t many questions more fundamental to a room makeover than: What colour are you going to paint it? Of course, interior design is more than colour – it’s spacial design and movement flow, textural contrast and light control. But colour is often the first thing we process in a new space, and therefore the first thing we want to decide on when planning a new project.
But how are you supposed to pick a colour scheme?
The truth is, there are as many different ways to settle on your colour palette as there are schemes themselves. Some are intrinsic – they’re based on things we feel internally like our preferences and favourite colours, whereas others are extrinsic – they’re dictated or impacted by the space itself.
Some are deeply technical, suited to anyone who wants to apply rigorous theory to their colour choices. Others are grounded in human behaviour or colour psychology, and still more draw on artistic – almost spiritual – inspiration.
Let’s take a look…
1. Think About Creating A Mood
Think about how you plan to live in the space you’re decorating. Not just how you live in it right now, but how you’d use it in an ideal world. Let’s use an example…
Before redecorating our master bedroom, we used to spend minimal time in there. It was a slightly shabby space filled with mismatched furniture that we hadn’t chosen together – so all we used the space for was sleep. But we knew how we wanted to use it – for long, lazy weekend mornings with a coffee and the cat.
So the colour scheme is designed to create a specific mood – one of relaxation but crucially, energy to start the day. It’s light, airy and organic, with a grey-green base colour that I chose because it looks great in the morning when flooded with light from the east-facing windows.
But that mood is based on how I want to live in my space. You might love nothing more than an hour pouring over a good book before bed, unwinding for sleep and relaxing your eyes after a day of looking at devices. And if that’s the case, a dark colour scheme made up of inky indigo or robust burgundy would create a soothing mood perfect for the evening.
Good for: Transforming a space you know isn’t working for your lifestyle
2. Work With The Physical Space
For this method, consider whether the physical space you’re redecorating offers up any limitations opportunities.
Example time: when we came to redecorate our spare bedroom-slash-loft conversion, we were faced with low ceilings, an irregular shape and one dormer window to light the whole space. An all-white colour scheme for the walls and ceiling was an obvious choice to bounce as much light around as possible (with coarse textures like berber carpet and jute accessories to keep the white more boho than minimalist).
In contrast, a big open-plan area that’s spoiled for light but lacks clear purpose or zoning could take bold and contrasting colours on the walls to indicate transition between spaces.
While there are very few “rules” worth listening to when it comes to choosing a colour scheme, responding to the shape, size and character of a space can be a useful starting point to develop a palette.
Good for: Tricky spaces such as small or awkwardly shaped rooms
3. Focus On An Existing Feature
If you’re lucky enough to live in a period home filled – literally – to the rafters with original features then a) I am extremely jealous, can we swap houses? and b) you’ll want to consider these when choosing a colour scheme. But it’s not just about the history of a property – any home with an integral statement feature will likely have an impact on the colours you choose.
I’m going through this exact process right now, as I design the colour scheme for our living room, where an exposed brick chimney breast is the clear focal point of the space. The colours we choose must compliment the rosy-toned brick and distressed cream paintwork.
But any feature – from timber beams to original floorboards, a statement ceiling rose to zinc-framed bi-fold doors could begin to narrow down your colour choices.
Good for: Finding a starting point, and distinctive or period properties
4. Start With Statement Furniture Or Artwork
If going from a blank slate to a colour (or colours) feels like too big a leap, consider instead finding a piece of furniture – or art – that you are confident in choosing. Then base your colour scheme on this.
Finding yourself drawn to a piece of art in a gallery or a piece of furniture can feel more natural than picking one tin of paint from hundreds on the shelves at B&Q. And once you’ve found something you love, use that as the ‘anchor’ to your colour scheme.
I used this as a factor in my master bedroom makeover – I chose my accent colours of warm sand and burnt orange from the variations of tone in the rattan of a bed I fell head-over-heels in love with.
The trick with this technique? Make sure you really, really love that piece of art or furniture!
Good for: Overcoming decision paralysis
5. Use A Colour Palette Tool
Do you wish someone would just…tell you the right answer? Short of employing an interior designer, here’s an option for those that love to know it will work.
There are plenty of palette generator tools on the web, some more intuitive than others. I’m a fan of coolors.co – where every hit of the space bar generates a complimentary colour scheme complete with hex codes that you can match to a paint sample.
Simply hammer the space bar until something ‘clicks’ for you.
Though it’s designed for web design, it uses colour theory to find non-clashing combinations, and could be just the inspiration you need.
Good for: Reassuring the less confident decorator
6. Copy With Pride
Make use of colour palette boards on Pinterest (I can’t recommend this one highly enough, but perhaps I’m biased…) to see what you’re drawn to. On Instagram, follow some interior design hashtags (#interiormilk #spotlightonmyhome #interiorsnapshot #myhouseandhome are some of my favourites) and save down anything you like to a colour palette collection.
After a while, look back at what you’re pinning and bookmarking. Notice any themes? From my Instagram collections, it’s obvious that my interiors influences are desaturated period palettes and warm neutrals.
Are your little squares filled with shades of grey? Can you not keep away from black-and-white everything? Are you pinning dusty pink like mad? If you’re struggling to consciously recognise your preferences, this sort of exercise can help you spot the trends in spaces you’re drawn to.
Good for: The decorator who knows what they like when they see other people do it
7. Go Down The Theory Rabbit Hole
We could talk all day about Colour Theory – the inter-disciplinary practice that uses the position of colour on the optic spectrum to match up colours that are complimentary, analogous, harmonious, tertiary…
According to colour theory, following some basic rules like “colours next to one another on the wheel are complimentary” can help devise colour schemes.
Look – if you’re that way inclined, there’s no doubt that Colour Theory will offer some clarity and reassurance when it comes to coupling colours. To me, it feels like awfully hard work for fairly basic conclusions on a topic that should feel intuitive. But I appreciate that’s a visual brain talking and, in the words of Monica Geller, “rules control the fun!”
Difficulty: 7/10 (or 1/10 if you’re an analytical type!)
Good for: Finding a binary answer to an analogue question
8. Turn A Photo Into A Colour Scheme
Canva is an extremely powerful tool for all sorts of amateur design, but it’s also a great colour palette generator.
You can upload any photo and it will pull out the key and accent colours with associated hex codes.
I have a grossly pretentious story about physically stopping in the street to stare at the pavement because the light grey cement kerb carpeted with sycamore seeds – most still minty green while a few had turned a warm rusty brown – was the exact scheme I wanted in my bedroom. My other half thought I’d lost my mind, and perhaps he was right.
But that vintage floral illustration you’re using as your desktop background because you find it oddly compelling? Try turning it into a colour palette – it might rock your world.
Good for: Finding inspiration in unlikely places
9. Reject The Idea Of A Scheme Altogether
Who says you need to stick to one colour, or three colours, or that colours ought to “go” together? Who’s the arbiter of clashing versus complimenting?
By far, the most important thing about any space is that you love it, and love living in it. And if that means every colour under the sun is present in all the wonderful things you’ve collected throughout your life, that’s a magnificent way to decorate.
It takes a certain laid-back attitude (the scattered approach to design suits the artistically chaotic more than the neurotic Type A personality) coupled with supreme confidence to decorate in this way, and I’m entirely humbled by people who do it.
Good for: An eccentric home for an eclectic life
10. Go With Your Gut
What colours dominate your wardrobe? Which colour Sharpie would you choose from a full set? What does a beautiful bunch of flowers look like to you?
Sometimes, knowing what we like in interior design is as simple as looking at the things we’re drawn to in other areas of our life.
It’s certainly not fool-proof – there are plenty of designers with colourful homes who dress exclusively in black. But asking yourself these sorts of questions – do you see a white wall as a missed opportunity or a gleaming example of minimalism? – can help you choose colours that just feel right.
Good for: Ending up with a home that reflects you