Interior Design Elements: Colour Schemes
Colour is both the most immediately noticeable and the most malleable element in decorating. Different combinations of colour can make the same room and the same furnishings seem warm or cool, restful or stimulating, harmonious or jarring, welcoming or impersonal. In other words, colour is of the utmost importance — and for that reason it is the source of considerable worry to many people.
Some rare individuals can carry a colour around in their heads and match it absolutely. They look at a room and know instantly what will or should suit it, and how a single colour will look in this or that colour combination. The majority of us, however, have to work at developing our sense of colour. The easiest and most efficacious way is to get into the habit of looking hard at any combination of colours that pleases and appeals to you, and deliberately to analyse the build-up of the colours within that image.
Most visual artists develop the habit of patiently observing colour — of noting all the different shades and nuances that exist in an object or a scene. The Impressionists in particular developed the practice of describing everything they saw in terms of the most detailed breakdown of tones and shades. It is an interesting experiment to take a single item — a rug or a painting, a piece of china or a particular fabric — and to write down the various colours and tones of colours you see in it; not just those that predominate but also all the ancillaries that together make up the whole image. Once you have got used to looking at and analysing colour, you can draw inspiration from almost everything that visually pleases you — particularly, of course, from the natural world.
Think of country or forest or sea or sky colours, or of the build-up of tones in a Mediterranean village or your own garden. Most rural scenes contain innumerable shades of green harmoniously blended with bright flashes of colour from flowers, blossoms, berries or crops. Similarly, looking at an old-fashioned rose garden can tell you how to make successful blends of pinks, yellows, peaches, greens and terracottas, creating a subtle and pleasing scheme of equal tones against a background of the green of trees or the rose-terracotta of an old brick wall.
Another way to build up ideas for a scheme is to observe your own and other people’s emotional responses. People often have extraordinarily violent reactions to different colours for no logical reason. ‘I loathe green,’ they say, or ‘I just can’t tolerate anything pink.’ It is difficult to see how people can possibly object when these colours are used well and with the right balance of contrasts but, whatever the logic of these responses, you can use them positively. Take your favourite colour and think about it in depth. Think, for example, of yellow, and remember everything floral and yellow from the palest creamy yellow of honeysuckle or freesia to the thick creamy velvet of rose petals, through narcissi to daffodils and marigolds. Think of other colours in the same kind of depth and it should be easy to translate all these subtleties and variations of tone into interesting monochromatic colour schemes, especially when the colours are translated into textures to make up a room: wood and wool, cottons and velvet and tweed, paint and paper; all of these and many more can be used to give differing depths and surfaces.
If you are not sure what style of decoration you want to use and are still uncertain about the colours that you find comfortable to live with, there is a useful trick. Buy as many decorating books and magazines as you can. Mark the pages showing pictures of rooms that particularly appeal to you, put the books and magazines aside for a few days, and then look at all your favoured photographs at once. You will notice almost certainly that there is a common style and balance of colours between them.
Matching Colours to Style
Although certain colours and colour combinations are definitely connected with particular periods (dark plums, reds and greens for late19th-century style; stripes and apricot for the Regency period; perhaps orange, green and cream for the 1930s) and indeed are sometimes called after a period, style or culture — as in, say, ‘Pompeiian red’ and ‘Adam green’ —there is no need to feel you are rigorously bound by such traditional conventions.
A comforting example can be found in the recolouring of the William Morris designs by Liberty: these look good today, yet they do not in any way sacrifice William Morris’s original style. Or again think of the extraordinarily pretty chintzes revamped from old designs by Colefax & Fowler, Scalamandré, Sandersons and others. It is all a question of balance and proportion.
As far as rooms are concerned, the degree of your success will depend on the way you personally manipulate style and ‘feeling’ to your own best comfort.