7 Must-Know Rules for Decorating With Color

Updated 04/28/19

Color can have a profound impact on mood and emotion—it's a powerful transformative design tool. Some believe fiery tones evoke rage and passion, blue can calm you down after a stressful day, and green encourages rest and relaxation. Prominent Australian interior designer and stylist Shannon Fricke believes "every aspect of interior decorating requires a thorough understanding of color," and the only way to become a deft hand is to practice. 

But what about the color-averse like me? Decorating with color can be really intimidating when your default is neutrals or pastels at best. Well, don't stress, Fricke's no-fuss approach will guide you toward the hues that not only suit your home but your personality and lifestyle too. Push aside your doubts or fears and be open to exploring the beauty that color can bring to your space. 

But before you pick up that paintbrush, it's time to improve your color knowledge with Fricke's expert tips.

If You're New to Color, Choose a Room to Experiment

how to decorate with color
Elizabeth Roberts Architecture and Design

Color can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first time decorating. If you want to experiment but aren't sure where to start, Fricke recommends choosing a small space in the house rather than main living area, such as a home office or guest room. This will give you a chance to test new colorways or wallpaper patterns without making a major commitment. Be sure to map out a plan before you start, though. “Like everything with decorating, it’s important to have an overall concept for your home before you begin coloring one particular room,” she says.

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White Opens Up a Space, But Steer Clear of Yellow Ones

decorating with color at home
Louise Liljencrantz

It’s well known that white is a go-to hue to create the illusion of space, but which shade is best? Not all whites are created equal, according to Fricke. “Keep your whites crisp, a gray or blue undertone helps, and steer clear of yellow whites as these will warm and close in a space,” she says. “Always stick to the lighter end of the spectrum when creating the illusion of space in a room. Keep the color pure, not muted or dirty.”

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Pair Complementary Colors That Sit Opposite the Color Wheel

how to use color at home
Jean Charles Thomas

While some colors naturally work well together, others can clash terribly. So how do you know which ones to incorporate in your space? Shannon encourages getting to know the color wheel when pairing colors. “As a rule, pair complementary colors together (those that sit opposite each other on the color wheel),” she notes. “This approach creates a vibrant, sometimes feisty interior. Alternatively, choose colors either side of your main color and work within tones of that color. For example, blue and green or orange and yellow always work well together. This approach creates a serene, calming interior.”

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Understand Each Color Has an Underlying Personality

colorful living room
Louise Liljencrantz

Color isn’t one-size-fits-all. What works for one person won’t work for another, so Fricke says it’s important you develop a relationship with color and understand that each shade has an underlying personality. "Red, for example, is jumpy, full of adrenaline, the life of the party, while blue is serene and calm," she says. "Once you begin to mix colors, then the party really starts. A cobalt blue will take on the attributes of red and blue—serene and feisty at the same time. So be sure to get to know color in this way first."

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Wallpaper and Bold Color Will Brighten Up an Ensuite Bathroom

tips for decorating with color
Alyssa Rosenheck ; DESIGN: Austin Bean Design Studio

If you really want to push your personal color boundaries, Fricke says the bathroom is the place to do it. “I’ve seen color used to great effect in en suite bathrooms,” she says, “particularly through the use of pattern and wallpaper.” But before you start painting the glue and plastering your favorite wallcovering, there are a few things you should know about placement. “Above the railing is always best, and away from wet areas as your wallpaper won’t survive,” said Shannon. “Below the railing should be one solid color and preferably tiled. If you’d prefer to stick to tiles in the bathroom, then experiment with bold color throughout—or on one wall (behind the vanity is best) if you’d prefer to take things slowly.”

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Dark Colors Anchor an Oversize Space

decorating a dark interior
Louise Liljencrantz

Dark interiors have become incredibly popular in recent years, but there’s a big difference between saving them on Pinterest and actually translating the look into your home. Fricke recommends dark colors in a large space that is difficult to anchor. “The darkness of your color choice, let’s say charcoal, works well to cocoon the space, making you feel more supported in the space,” she says. “Another approach is to use a dark color in a teeny-weeny space, going with the space rather than fighting it. This creates a kind of boudoir effect, and it’s seriously cozy, especially if it’s a bedroom.”

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Colors That Complement the Era of Your Home Won't Date

blue dresser
Alyssa Rosenheck

It can be tricky keeping your interior fresh over the years—here’s what to do if your décor is dated—so how can you use color to ensure it stays modern? First Shannon asks you take time to consider the size of a space and how much natural light it receives. Then make a note of the era: What are the architectural features? Does your color complement the era? Is the environment of your space urban or country? 

“Your color palette needs to extend from the exterior to the interior, creating a sense of harmony from the front to the back of the room,” she says. “If you consider all of these elements, then color won’t date.” But if you’re into experimentation and love throwing out the rule book, then Shannon has some sage advice: “Choose color for one wall or one space, and apply it in a way that is easily changed—like through paint!”

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This post was originally published on June 2, 2016, and has since been updated.

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