A 12-part color wheel demonstrates how colors blend to create other colors: The primary colors red, yellow, and blue, when mixed produce secondary colors orange, green, and purple. Combining secondary colors with primary colors results in tertiary colors such as blue-green and red-orange. Neutral and near neutral colors, including black, white, gray, and certain shades of brown, green, and yellow (think beige and olive green) aren't found on the color wheel. These colors tend to harmonize easily because they contain equal proportions of their constituent colors
A 12-part color wheel demonstrates how colors blend to create other colors: The primary colors red, yellow, and blue, when mixed produce secondary colors orange, green, and purple. Combining secondary colors with primary colors results in tertiary colors such as blue-green and red-orange. Neutral and near neutral colors, including black, white, gray, and certain shades of brown, green, and yellow (think beige and olive green) aren't found on the color wheel. These colors tend to harmonize easily because they contain equal proportions of their constituent colors

. We humans have a complex relationship with color. Our color preferences aren't based only on taste but also on innate psychological responses including shifts in mood, spatial perception, and even physical comfort. Our responses to color influence how well we like a space and how much time we spend in it — two issues of vital concern to designers.

Color Me Beautiful Interior designers ought to be well versed in color theory, the science that explains how colors affect us. But even if you work with interior designers, and especially if you don't, understanding some of the basic elements of color theory can help you guide clients to the right choices.

In general, people favor color schemes that exhibit a balance of color characteristics, often referred to as a color harmony. When a design achieves this balance, people are more inclined to feel comfortable in the finished space. Understanding color harmonies begins with color's three essential characteristics.

Hue is the base color or color family (red, blue, orange).

Value measures the lightness or darkness of a color.

Saturation or chroma measures the brightness or intensity of a color.

Hues are often described either as warm (reds, yellows, oranges) or cool (blues, greens, purples). A color wheel, a representation of the colors in the visible spectrum of light, illustrates this distinction.

Most hues contain other hues: Mixing primary colors red, yellow, and blue produces secondary colors orange, green, and purple. Combining secondary colors and primary colors results in tertiary colors such as blue-green and red-orange. Secondary and tertiary hues seem more like those near them on the spectrum because they are in fact composed of the same base hues.

Working Together “Warm and cool colors also behave very differently in space,” says Sashi Caan, chair of the Interior Design program at the Parsons School of Design. Warm colors appear to stand out or advance, and for this reason, may stimulate or agitate. Cool colors recede and, in many instances, this helps create a more calming or soothing environment. Designers also sometimes exploit the advance-recede phenomenon either to play up the intimacy of a room, or create a more spacious feel. But Caan warns that in a three-dimensional space a number of factors can diminish these effects.

Basic color harmonies can be achieved using cool and warm colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel, called complementary hues, or hues adjacent on the color wheel, called analogous hues.

Neutral and near-neutral hues, including black, white, gray, and certain shades of brown, green, and yellow aren't found on the color wheel. These colors tend to harmonize easily because they contain equal proportions of their constituent colors.

The Full Spectrum In thinking about color, most people focus on hue, but, says Caan, value and saturation are also critically important. It is these characteristics that tend to determine whether we're comfortable in a space.

Regardless of the mixture of hues, Caan says, an appropriate mixture of values is essential to creating a pleasing color balance. “It's very important to have three values,” Caan says. “Dark, medium, and light must always be represented to create balance in an environment.”

Professional designers carefully modulate value, she says, combining, for example, a predominance of darker values with fewer midrange values and lighter accents.

Saturation also requires thoughtful consideration. Most people are very sensitive to differences in saturation and varying the level of this characteristic can drastically alter our perception of a color. Highly saturated colors, whether warm or cool, tend to produce reactions similar to those associated with warm colors. That is, saturated colors stand out or advance.

“Most human beings do not have a tolerance for large quantities of saturated color,” Caan says. Highly saturated colors should generally only be used for accent.