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Choosing A Color Scheme

Bored with beige? Ready to nix the neutrals? Here are a few simple guidelines to getting cool with color.

Amanda Scott
Amanda Scott
Green kitchen cabinets and wall, gold fixtures, black and white rug.

Choosing a color scheme for a room can be so much fun, but it can also be a bit baffling. How many colors should be used? Is it better to go with neutrals? How much color is too much?

Luckily, there are a few guidelines you can follow to achieve color harmony in your space. Most of these keys are based on the color wheel and basic color theory.

Basic Color Theory

To understand how to combine colors, it’s important to first understand how the color wheel works. The color wheel is made up of 12 sections based on the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and the secondary colors they make when combined (orange, green, and purple). The other sections are combinations of the primary and secondary colors.

color wheel, 12 colors.

Color Schemes

There are some ways of combining colors that will always work. These are a few of the easiest ways to start, but remember that your space should really reflect your personal taste and be pleasing to your eye. This is a great opportunity to use your favorite color as a dominant and accent it with its complementary color. If you fall in love with a piece of furniture, art, or rug in a vibrant color, design your room around it!


blonde wood chairs, gray walls, black table.

As the name implies, a monochromatic color scheme uses a single color in its various shades and tones. On the color wheel, it would be your single favorite color choice and the shades directly surrounding it. This is an easy color scheme to achieve, but it can be difficult to establish a focal point in the room.


Kitchen with light blue walls and burnt orange chair cushions.

A complementary color scheme involves two colors that highly-contrast each other. These colors will be found on opposite sides of the color wheel, like yellow and purple or blue and orange.

Some general rules are:

  • choose one dominant color over the other to favor,
  • and use its complementary color for accents.

Another option is to use both colors against a neutral background. Remember that highly-contrasting colors right next to each other can sometimes be difficult on the eye (red and yellow, for example). This is best avoided by changing the tint of one color and the tone of the other. For example, if you want to use blue and orange as complementary colors, experiment with shades such as a sky blue paired with a burnt orange.

Split complementary

Pink satin bedding, soft green walls, neutral brown chair.

A variation on complementary color scheme is the split complementary scheme. With this theme, a base color is chosen and its complementary color is established but not used. Instead, the two colors on either side of the complementary color are used, hence the term “split complementary.”

For example, if the chosen base color for coordinating a room was the color red, then the complementary color would be green - which is surrounded by blue-green and yellow-green. Therefore, the room’s color scheme would consist of red, blue-green, and yellow-green.

The split complementary scheme is a fun and easy way for those who don’t have much experience working with colors and decor to get started. Be sure to break up all of those bold colors with generous amounts of neutral hues, or the space may become overwhelming.


Room with pinks, yellows and blues.

The triadic color scheme is a bit trickier but can be a lot of fun. Choose three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, such as purple, orange, and green. One color should be chosen as the dominant, with the other two acting as accents. This scheme is highly-contrasting but can balance out with the right amount of moderation. Use neutral tones to dial back the vibrancy of the colors or go all in and saturate the space.



Bright colorful rugs in floral and abstract designs.

A colorful area rug can bring all the little details of your decor together. A rug can be a great place to start when you haven’t decided on a color scheme yet. If you find a rug you love, let it be the foundation for the space. It can set the tone for wall coverings, furniture, throw pillows, and more. Just remember to allow one color to be the dominant color in the space and, using one of the color schemes, assign other complementary colors as accents.

Wall Coverings

3 swatches of wall paper, green with white lilies, yellow with birds.

Patterned wallpaper or wall coverings can be a great foundation for your color scheme because they already contain a well-balanced combination of colors, and they can also add texture and depth.

Wall Art

Marmont blue and green ocean abstract. Safavieh Coy fish art "Go Fish".

Particularly helpful if your walls are a neutral hue, wall art can add pops of color of your accent tones very easily.


Moes Courntey sofa in royal blue.

Use your furniture as part of your color planning. In a space like a living room, a great sofa will be the focal point of the room, especially in a bold color. If your sofa is in your dominant color, be sure that your rug and accent furniture are complementary or neutral tones.

Pro Tip: Make a Favorites List

Moe's Raphael sofa in yellow, Marmont Hill  print, Kichler Chandeler

Before you begin, create a favorites list of items in the color scheme you’ve chosen and start collecting samples of wall coverings, area rugs, furniture, accessories, paint colors, and lighting you want to consider in your space. Seeing it all together can be incredibly helpful to imagining what it will look like in your home.

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