What Color is Comfort?

When I first visited my mother in sunny San Jose, stepping inside her house was like being beamed to the Mexican Riviera. It was totally unlike the Denver houses we lived in before the divorce and before my father got custody of me. I was astonished to see a flame-red hibiscus in her living room, its tropicality underscored by a fake snake whose gaily painted, jointed wooden body was twined among the leaves.

But my room felt arctic. I knew that mom had painted it my favorite color – blue – in honor of my first visit. But despite the sunny surroundings, I felt so cold that I was turning blue in that room.

The blue in this glass vase is my favorite shade - one thats difficult to use in interiors. This collection of baskets, glass and pottery defines the palette for Janes beachfront condo living room, pairing blue with complementary orange and gold to give it warmth.

In reality, that bedroom was as warm as the rest of the house. But its French blue hue strongly influenced the way I perceived its temperature. For that reason, blue is seldom a good color for a room in a temperate climate. I rarely use it in work I do for my interior design clients.

As you probably know, the words “comfort and joy” figure in the names of both this blog and my interior design business, Comfort and Joy Interior Design – and for good reason. I am more concerned with the ways things feel and work than many of my fellow designers. The information we take in through our eyes is hugely important, and it strongly influences our feelings. But vision is just one of the five senses through which we perceive our surroundings, and what we take in through one sense is colored by what we learn through another.

In this post, I will talk about the emotional impact of color – about what colors make us comfortable in what circumstances – and also about how color influences our perception of space and place. Most of my recent design jobs here in San Francisco have been color consultations, and this post will share some of those experiences. At the end, you should have a pretty good idea of what the color of comfort might be for you.

Jane’s Blue Glass and African Tapestries

After years of living in an off-white apartment that she wasn’t allowed to paint, my client Jane bought a condominium near Ocean Beach. On sunny days, the light streams in from the west-facing windows. The deck beckons you to come out and enjoy white gulls skimming over a cobalt blue ocean. I could see why Jane, a talented amateur photographer whose work reveals a love of color and equatorial light, was attracted to the place.

But the beach is often foggy. On overcast days, the living room, which was painted a putty color in its entirety, looked drab and cold. The baskets Jane had collected during her travels disappeared against the walls. Her blue couch and her wonderful collection of royal blue Mexican glass added to the chilly feel of the room.

How could Jane enjoy the treasures she had collected in her travels without making her condo look as cold as my mother’s guest room?

I suggested a warm gold for her living room, a color that is often used in the Mediterranean, where it is paired with blue and orange. Since blue and yellow are complementary colors – colors that face one another across the color wheel – they are opposites, and the boundaries where they meet are so intense they sometimes seem to vibrate.

These wall hangings are from Ghana, and each traditional pattern of weaving has a name and a meaning - for example, one bright, vibrant pattern is called Good Sleeping Mat. Jane's collection of Ashanti hangings is prominently featured in her living room because the warm colors brighten a room even when clouds hover above the rooms skylights.

Better yet, all these hues were reprised in some Ghanian weavings that Jane had stashed in a closet. (Jane spent time in the Peace Corps in Africa where she collected a treasure trove of traditional and rustic fabrics. ) I suggested making these Ashanti Kente cloths, shown in the photo at left, a focal point, warming up the wall opposite her fireplace. Jane and I both were pleased by the results.

Coloring our Emotions

Our thermal comfort is affected by the actual temperature of the air, by the amount of wind, sun, and moisture we feel, and also by our emotional response to colors. We refer to watery blues and greens as “cool colors” and to fiery yellow, red, and orange as “warm colors” for reasons rooted in our psychological response to our environment and in our physical sensations. Language, too, reveals these connections: we refer to anger as being “hot under the collar” and to embarrassment as being “red in the face” with terms that correspond to the physical sensations that accompany these emotions.

In multiple experiments, psychologists have tested the links between color, behavior and emotion. One psychologist found that people were apt to buy more in a shopping area painted blue. Another study found that red enhanced men’s amorous feelings. Yet another investigator asked people to guess the air temperature in a room where the thermal level was held constant and found that their subjects’ perception of warmth was definitively and consistently influenced by the color of the room.

That’s why, even though blue is difficult to use successfully in homes in temperate climates, it’s a cool manuever in places like Morocco and Mexico. Some years ago, I traveled to Antigua, Guatemala for a wedding and stayed in the Hotel Azul. True to its Spanish name, the hotel was decorated with multiple blue walls, the most striking of which was behind the reception desk. (You can see it in photos on the hotel’s website.) After the dazzling tropical sun, the heat and the dusty streets, the cool, shaded entryway with its blue wall seemed like a very welcome oasis.

Many people are afraid to add color to their walls, but I encourage you to get over it. Because it’s only paint and can be re-painted, experimentation is not really risky.

Tips on Trying Out a Color

You can also get a much better idea of how a color is going to look by buying a small sample can of paint and trying a patch – or several patches of different colors – on your wall. Be sure to look at the patches repeatedly throughout a day. It’s best to observe how the hue changes in bright sun, under clouded natural light, and in artificial light at night. Lamplight tends to be pink or yellow, depending on how it’s produced. Natural light, however, is quite blue, and when a strong beam of it hits a wall, it will also reflect the color onto adjacent walls, increasing the impact of the color.

Another good way to try out a color is by stretching a sheet or blanket of a color similar to the one you’re considering near or in front of where you’re planning to paint. Have a couple friends over, and then take turns holding the sheet and looking the wall from across the room.

If you happen to be good with Photoshop, you can move complex furnishings (those with edges that are not straight) away from the wall, take a photo and “virtually” paint the wall. At the bottom of this post, you can see at set of these that I did for my friend Alexei. I was prompted to do this after she announced that her off-white living room looked “like the inside of a refrigerator.” I suggested the idea of an accent wall, and we first tried out the colors with Photoshop and then with my sage green sheet. Both helped her visualization process.

Color and our Perception of Space

White or pale colors make objects appear to recede. Dark or bright colors draw things closer, and, that in turn, causes them to appear larger. Perceptually, yellow, red, and orange seem to move toward us, while a blue or green wall, or one that’s painted a dark gray, will appear to move away. Knowing this, you can use paint to improve the way that an awkwardly shaped room looks. For example, you can make a corridor look less long and skinny by painting the side walls a lighter color than the wall at the far end of the hall – you can doubly enhance the effect by painting the end wall a strong, warm color like brick red or ochre orange.

Image above: A room designed with a soothing adjacent color palette accenting a favored belonging - in this case, a watercolor painting done by the designer. Although nothing about this room looks clinical, the room has been designed to mitigate toxics and to enhance the comfort or someone who suffers from dust allergies and asthma.

You can also use color and finish to help a room that gets too much, or too little, sun. A light colored surface will reflect more light than a dark surface. You can also hide unattractive objects, such as the convection heater I recently installed in my dining room, by painting them the same color.

You should also consider your furnishings and lifestyle when choosing colors and paint finishes. Matte white walls and small children are not a good combination; an eggshell or enamel finished green or yellow will probably hide little fingerprints and bear cleanup better. If you have a dark blue couch, it’s a good idea to use that blue as an accent and choose something lighter for your main room color.

Here are some tricks for using color to improve problem spaces:

  • Lower a high ceiling: If you paint the walls a light color and the ceiling a darker color, it will appear lower. The opposite also works; a ceiling that is light than the walls will appear higher.
  • Make the room more intimate: Dark, warm colors make a space feel cozy and intimate
  • Break up a big room: Use colors to define areas within the room. Not long ago, my clients Ron and Claire asked help in arranging a large living room that was the shape of a shoe box with waist-height windows along two sides. Claire quickly saw that her customary procedure of positioning the furniture along the walls wasn’t going to work. I used the tribal and oriental rugs they had collected to define areas within the room; the deep saturated reds in the rugs set off the wood floors and immediately drew the eye to focus on a collection of couch and chairs placed so that people sitting in them were close enough together to hear one another talk. The color also differentiated that conversation area from the dining and TV areas.
  • Make the room bigger and more airy: Use light colors, pastels or shades of same color.

Cultural Cues and Regional Palettes

As noted above, the palette I chose for Jane’s living room is Mediterranean and particularly associated with Italy and Southern France. (My favorite French Bistro, La Provence, for example, is done in the same palette.)

Above: Pierre Deux
fabrics in classic
Provencal hues.
Top to bottom:
Favenay Cream,
Avignonet Red and
Ochre, and Campano

There are classic color combinations that are associated with many of the world’s countries and regions. Sometimes, they are even incorporated into a nation’s flag – an example being the red, white, blue of the French “tricolor.” Powder blue paired with butter yellow denotes Sweden. The combination of black, gold and a deep, glossy red, called “Chinese red”, is characteristic of traditional Chinese interiors.

Decorators consciously use these combinations to evoke a locale, particularly in decorating restaurants. You may have noticed the plethora of Italian restaurants decorated in red, white, and green. You might also have realized that virtually every Chinese restaurant includes the same deep, laquered red you see on the Empress Dowager’s fingernails in the movie “The Last Emperor”.

Since you’re reading a design blog, you probably are aware of this, but for some people, the effect is subconscious. Not everyone is visually oriented. I remember being absolutely astonished when I visited the home of my husband’s friend Nate. Although Nate had been living there for more than five years, not a single picture was hanging on any of the white walls. By contrast, when I move into an office, I usually hang things on the wall the first week!

You might want to use such a classic color palette, as decorators do, to evoke the ambience of a particular locale. Similarly, you might want to use a palette to create a particular style or period of interior. For example, French Provincial furniture is usually distressed and rustic, and it’s colors are the natural brown of wood, pastels, or white with gold accents. The wall and fabric colors characteristic of this country French style are drawn from traditional block-printed Provencal fabrics, such as the “Les Indiennes” patterns that became popular in the 1800’s. The French firm Pierre Deux has been producing classic Provencal fabrics for hundreds of years; the swatches shown at left include several typical designs and color palettes.

Now that Jane has asked for my help in decorating her bedroom, I have given her a palette of colors similar to the Easter-like hues in the Campano pattern at bottom left. Jane has a collection of hats – colored hats that will contrast nicely on an ivory wall – plus half a dozen natural-colored straw hats. Jane wanted to feature the hats in her bedroom design, and I thought that the three dimensionality of the hats would add interest to an otherwise boxy room. The straw hats looked dull on the ivory wall, but they contrast nicely with a lavender accent wall. The wall picks up the color of a mantle above Jane’s bed and the tones in several of her photos – photos that she picked from her collection – so that everything fits together with the feminine style and colors of the new bedroom design.

You may have heard that colors have different symbolic meanings in different cultures – for example, black is the color of funerals in the US and Western Europe, but in China, white is the color of mourning. Brides in China, however, wear red. Because this symbology applies mostly to clothing and furnishings, you needn’t concern yourself about it when choosing wall color.

Tried and True Techniques

Interior designers frequently use a recipe that calls for a 60/20/10 distribution between three colors in a palette, with the 60% portion allocated to a neutral or light color. This is called a triad palette.

There are plenty of other palettes that are also fairly fool-proof, and they are used often enough to even merit names. There’s a tone palette that uses monochromatic shades of a single color. There’s an “adjacent” palette, which is illustrated by the photo above. There are also complementary and split complementary palettes – the link at the beginning of this paragraph will take you to a primer about these.

The International Style gave rise to a palette that you will frequently see in modern interiors. It mixes neutrals, particularly textured natural materials such as wood, stone, and metals with a single accent color. Originally, that accent color was red, but currently, the modernist accent color seems to be lime green.

There are also classic palettes that are associated with interior styles, and the timid or tentative won’t go far wrong if they choose within those palettes (particularly if the house and/or its furnishings are in that style). There’s a nicely subdued palette that is associated with the Arts & Crafts style, an Art Deco palette, and Victorian palette, among others.

Another nice way to create a palette for a room is to key it to a dominant painting or textile. I did this recently for my client Cathy, who wanted to decorate her guest room around an oil painting. The painting featured gold, orange, and purple shades, but her room also included a blue braid rug that didn’t seem to relate to the painting. The painting did include shades of green, including a palm green that is subtly repeated in the blue rug, and that green is the complement of the more dominant orange in the painting. The room is now a pastel shade of that green – almost white at first glance – and the painting now coordinates with all the furnishings.

I used this same color strategy to develop the palette for my own living roon, which is pictured above. The room takes its adjacent palette from the colors in my Naked Ladies watercolor – a huge painting that is more than three feet high and four feet wide. You ca view it detail on my website.

Resource Links


Nicolette’s Cool Photoshop Visualization Trick

(It’s as easy as taking pounds off of Katie Couric!)

Original wall in the room that looked like the inside of a refrigerator
The room that "looked like the inside of a refrigerator"

Photoshop visualization of rose accent wall
Smoky rose accent wall

Visualization of a mauve accent wall
Mauve accent wall

And the winner is...this one!
And the winner is...this one!

4 thoughts on “What Color is Comfort?

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