Painting Walls [Part 1]— Understanding Color

Ana Luísa Pinto 1


I wanted to write something brilliant, but paint is on my mind.  Seriously, those who’ve experienced the wiles of choosing a wall color know that the right paint is no quick stop at Lowes.

When it comes to the character of a house, color means more than style, form, and proportion.  It has the power to enchant and equal power to distress.  It creates a dull, drab and lifeless atmosphere as much as one that is lively, warm and beautiful.  No need to argue— color is important.

As I shuffle through dozens of color swatches and smear endless paint samples on my walls, I am still searching.  Searching for the hue to bring out veins from the surrounding wood paneling, to highlight the slate inlays, to avoid clashing with the travertine floor, and to serve as the perfect backdrop for furniture.  I want the walls to blend into the background, draw neither negative nor positive attention and disappear while illuminating everything around them.

How the heck can I do that?

Artists spend their lives immersed in color theory.  Not me, but I would like to demystify color by writing three posts to share some of the principles that I gleaned from my favorite decorator, Emily Post in her book, Personality of a House: The Blue Book of Home Charm just in case you too find yourself quizzically staring into the depths of a blank wall.

Color Values


Image | Moses Harris, 1766

Various tints and shades are called high and low values.  The true original color at full intensity is called middle value.

Colors mixed with white are called tints, while those mixed with black are called shades.

Each color on the chromatic chart is called a hue.  Royal blue and baby blue are the highlight and low light of the same hue.

There are three different ways to change a color: mixing it with another color changes its hue; mixing it with black or white changes its value; mixing it with its complement turns it pastel.

Complementary Colors

The complement of any color is the one directly opposing it on a color chart.  The complement of each color is the color that contains none of its own hues, red is the complement of green, a mixture of blue and yellow which contains no red.

The effect of complementary colors on each other is very interesting to experiment with.  They lose all brilliance if any portion of one is mixed with the other.  Vivid yellow and strongest violet mixed in equal parts creates neutral gray.  That same gray is produced by mixing blue with orange, or green with red, or any of the intermediate hues such as red-violet with yellow-green.

Putting complementary colors next to each other creates the most brilliant contrast possible to produce.

Complementary colors are like salt to food, if there is none of it in the composition of an interior it will lack flavor, but too much is unbearable.

Triad of Harmony

Yellow, red and blue; violet, orange and green; red-orange, blue-violet, and yellow-green and so on are each triad of harmony.  These triads are safe to combine if modified in quantity or intensity.

Triads are not to be used in equal parts and full strengths but rather combined with their own grayed hues, plus any mixture of white or black.  They should be softened or diluted in value or quantity so that the room does not hit you in the eye like an advertisement poster.

Color Zero

White and black; gold and silver are considered colorless.

Weight of Color

The weight of color balances the color scheme of the interior. Heavier color goes on the floor.  Lighter color goes on the ceiling, medium color between the two, on the walls.  If this order is reversed the room will seem to be turned upside-down.

The weight of color is measured by how near or far it is from yellow.  Yellow has the highest luminosity or light giving quality because it is the color of sunlight.

Color weights start with yellow than orange, green, red, blue and violet being the heaviest.  White and black are not colors, but no matter how almost white a tint or almost black a shade, it is still a color. Black-violet or purple is the heaviest because it is the darkest color possible, while the cream is the lightest color possible.

This is an overview of the basics of color for painting, my next post will focus on the emotions of color.  We feel a certain something when we walk into a room and it’s often hard to put our finger on the thing that triggers those emotions, Painting Walls: Part 2— Emotions of Color will discuss how color affects the emotional state of a room.

Sources: Personality of a House: The Blue Book of Home Charm by Emily Post