Colour Theory: The Colour Wheel and its Use in Interior Design

neutral 2.png

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Colours

There are 3 primary colours in the colour wheel: Red, Blue and Yellow.

There are 3 secondary colours: Orange, Green & Violet. Secondary colours are created by mixing together primary colours e.g. yellow and blue mixed together make green. Red and Yellow = Orange and Red and Blue = Purple.

There are 6 tertiary colours: Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, Red-Violet which are created when mixing a primary and secondary colour together.

Tints, Tones, Hues & Shades

The relative lightness or darkness of a colour is called the tonal value or intensity.

  • PRIMARY RED is a HUE – in its highest intensity, it’s a fully saturated red.

  • Adding WHITE creates a TINT

  • Adding GREY creates a TONE

  • Adding BLACK creates a SHADE

What is a Neutral Colour?

neutral 1.png

A neutral colour scheme is composed of colours that are not in the colour wheel – e.g. creams, greys, beige, taupe, pure-blacks, pure-whites and are all based on shades from natural materials such as earth and stone.

A neutral scheme is good for setting of, diluting and balancing bright colours.

Advancing & Receding Colours

Advancing Colours

Advancing colours tend to be warmer colours such as red, red-violet, orange, yellow and yellow-orange. Advancing colours are the more dominant colours within an interior and advance “into” the space, and appear as thought they are coming towards you. It’s helpful to use advancing colours if you want to make a room feel warm, cosy and intimate.

In the example above, the use of advancing colours on the walls creates the illusion that the space is smaller, yet taller. If an advancing colour was used on the ceiling and the floor instead, this would have the opposite effect – making the ceiling and floor come down, towards you. This can be useful when you want to “lower” the ceiling of a very high room.

* Advancing colours should be used with care as too many advancing colours can appear claustrophobic.

The use of advancing and receding colours are helpful when you wish to zone or define a space, draw attention to architectural details and re-balance an interior.

In interior above uses an advancing colour makes the hallway feel wider as opposed to long and thin.

Receding Colours

Receding colours tend to be cool colours such as green, blue-green, blue and blue-violet. Receding colours that are pale or tints are less dominant and are particularly helpful when you want to create the illusion of space. As you can see in the example below, the use of a receding colours makes the interior feel spacious and light.

receding colour.png

There are however, exceptions to the rule…

As a general rule warm colours advance into a space, cool colours recede as shown in the last few examples.

However, research shows that the tone and intensity of a colour has an even greater effect on our perception of the space. Dark or intense cool colours (as in the image below – a deep intense blue) can advance more than lighter, less saturated warm ones such as this pale pink (below), even though it’s considered warm.

Complementary Colours

Complementary colour schemes are created when two colours which lie directly opposite each other on the colour wheel are used e.g. red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and violet. This scheme is thought to provide the ideal balance in a room because it always includes a warm and a cool hue. It’s important the design is predominantly one colour over the other, otherwise it can be jarring, uncomfortable and possibly too vibrant – dependent on taste…Different tints, tones and values of the colour can be used to soften this look e.g. turquoise and terracotta, rose and sage green, dark olive with crimson, pale green and soft pink or primrose and lavender.

*Adding neutrals to a complementary scheme helps to provide a grounding or bridge between the colours and helps to create a sense of harmony.

complementary 1.png
complementary 2.png


A monochromatic colour scheme is created when values of only one basic colour is used, e.g. various tints, tones and shades of blue. To avoid the design from becoming dull, shifts in tone and intensity can help to provide contrast. Strong tonal and textural contrasts can also help to create interest, and provide depth and balance.

A monochromatic scheme should be based on the same segment of the colour wheel – using turquoise, Wedgewood blue and lavender blue would not constitute a monochromatic scheme as the first colour is blue/green, the second is a value of pure blue and the third is blue/violet. Rooms decorated in a monochromatic colour scheme are more successful when combined with a neutral (black, white, grey or an off-white) and usually benefit from a contrasting accent or accents.

*Monochromatic should not be confused with monochrome schemes which are black and white (achromatic) with no hue.


Adjacent (Analogous) Colour

An adjacent (or analogous) colour scheme is created when you use a number of colours which are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel, e.g. yellow, yellow/green, green, blue/green. The colours can be light or dark, very intense or almost neutral. This type of scheme often works best when the colours share the same tonal value and intensity. In this instance it helps to break the colours up with the addition of some neutrals, ranging from light to dark, to provide tonal contrast.


Split Complementary

A split complementary colour scheme is created when a colour is mated with two colours which flank its direct opposite on the colour wheel (on a 12-colour pigment wheel) – blue with red/orange and yellow/orange; violet with yellow/orange yellow/green, Red with yellow-green an blue-green. The addition of tertiary colours gives these schemes greater subtlety than a straight complementary scheme based on a primary and secondary.

Amanda Mulquiney-Birbeck