Mad About . . .

Design Dilemmas: Choosing a colour palette

28th April 2020
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I thought I would dedicate today’s post to a reader’s question and, if I have more that work, I can turn this into a regular feature. And (small plug for the book) that means readers’s questions that are not already addressed in my 101 Interior Design Answers. So first up a question  – well three actually – from Hazel who wanted to know how you tell the difference between warm and cool colours, how you put a palette together and how you can use different wall colours in an open plan home.

black and white and pink and red by @nudeandthenovice

warm tones by @nudeandthenovice

So first up choosing a colour palette and the difference between those warm and cool colours. Years ago, in the 1980s, when Colour Me Beautiful was a thing, my mother had her colours done which resulted in a slavish devotion to magenta and navy blue and an entire restructuring of her hitherto sage, camel and lavender wardrobe. As it happens I think it was the wrong call but who was I to argue with Sue? Now Sue’s technique was to hold a swatch of gold and a swatch of silver to either side of your face and pronounce on which one suited you best. Like me, my mother wore gold jewellery and had white hair so I imagine it was a short step from sliver hair to silver and cool colours and that was then the rule.

soho house new york

soho house new york uses a warm blue and rich caramel tones to create a cosy space

These days I think we are all a little more design and colour-literate than we were back then, but it’s a broadly similar approach. The warm colours are basically yellows, reds, oranges while blues and greens and purples fall into the cool colour. Of course there are variations – some blush pinks will look almost peach in a warm south-facing light while magenta is very definitely a bluish and cool pink. More on that later.

But, on the basis that it’s good to start with our wardrobes when it comes to choosing a colour palette, the old gold and silver trick can work. If you have warm toned skin (which I do) then you will look better –  healthier and more radiant – in gold. Cooler tones will suit silver better. Alternatively look at the veins on your forearm – if they look blue you are cool and if they are greenish that is because you are seeing them through warm (yellow-toned) skin. Finally when it comes to your neutrals do you look better in white or cream, black or brown/navy shades? And on the basis that you probably like living in the same tones as you like wearing (note I said tones not necessarily colours) then that is a good place to start with your interior design palette.

Sophie Robinson's house belongs to the Spring (with a touch of Autumn palette

note how the stripes and colours repeat throughout this room belonging to Sophie Robinson

When it comes to interiors, the key is that your chosen palette must have the same undertones – a blue with a green undertone (base) won’t work with a white with a pink (red) undertone. It’s partly about practice. You need to look at lots of colours to start seeing the undertones and sometimes you need to put colours together to see how they react. But rather than spending a fortune on paint pots, have a fiddle with things in your wardrobe and see how they work. You might not want to wear red and pink but you might be able to see how certain red tops sit with some of the pink ones and how some really don’t like each other.

However, be aware that one of the key effects is that of natural light on a colour. I have spoken before about choosing a pale pink for my south facing bedroom. Every one I chose turned peach or coral as the day (and the sun) wore on. It was only when I picked a cooler one with violet undertones that I achieved the soft pink I wanted.

image by KW-S pink bedroom

threadneedle by mylands is a soft pink with violet undertones that works in a south-facing bedroom

I appreciate that this might sound stressy and complicated but once you start looking you will start to see the differences. My most popular blog post of all time, with over half a million hits (How to choose the right shade of Grey) addresses this issue of north and south-facing rooms and might help you.

Also, while I think this is useful when it comes to building a palette, I think you will also just know instinctively what does and doesn’t go if you stop to listen to yourself for a moment. Go back to your wardrobe. Look at the predominant colours there. Look also at the colour combinations on prints – they will have been designed by trained colourists who will know what goes with what. Look at what you like to wear when you get dressed  – on days when it isn’t blue jeans and a white t-shirt or a black suit for work.

Kate Watson-Smyth advises not to forget the fifth wall, also known as the ceiling. Her office ceiling in gold adds interest and bounces light around the room - the ideal backdrop for her large statement pendant light. #madaboutthehouse #homeoffice #goldceiling

my office links the pink of the bedroom with the burgundy of the sitting room

That is how you start to build a palette of colours. It can also help if you shop from one of the designer paint companies as their colours will all tend to belong to the same palette – Little Greene, Farrow &  Ball, Mylands etc. This is a huge topic but go with your gut. The key is to analyse how the colours make you feel – happy, stressed, relaxed, anxious and try and match those feelings to rooms. If a picture helps then use it. Or create a moodboard or swatchbox and we will be talking about just that on the podcast which is out on Thursday so the show notes will be here then. But, in short, bring your colours together and see how they marry or fight. Use a favourite piece of material as a starting point, print a picture that you like and add that – making sure to think about why you like it and what it is that has drawn you in, add a couple of paint chips, a picture of rug or a carpet sample and keep building it up until you have a palette of colours that you like. You can then use this to decorate your whole space. Have a read of this post which includes tips from Michelle Ogundehin’s book and that of Russell and Jordan on choosing colours and creating room schemes. Keep playing until you have created something that you like. That is your palette. For example mine is pink from pale to burgundy, chocolate to ecru with touches of dark green and ochre. All slightly dirty tones that fit together and are used in various combinations throughout my house – as you can see from the images above and below.

madaboutthehouse sitting room in fallen plum by atelier ellis

madaboutthehouse sitting room in fallen plum by atelier ellis

Finally, when it comes to an open plan home, use the colours to define the space. Maybe the sitting room will have darker walls as it’s more for evening, but the kitchen walls (where you have them) could be a paler version of that same shade. Consider the views from each part of the room and what you can see when you sit on the sofa or drain the pasta. Those colours need to be mates. It can be easier to go for tonal colours – Dulux do a colour card that is one colour from shades 1-6  – that can be a failsafe way of decorating in an open plan space.

Remember The Red Thread and you won’t go far wrong. The spaces need to link so if there is a marble worktop in the kitchen, then have a marble shelf or vase in the sitting area. Can the kitchen cupboards match the sofa? Or be lighter or darker versions of both? Would a patterned rug bring all the colours together in one place? Or a picture on the wall?

dark sofa and earth tones via stadshem

dark sofa and earth tones via stadshem – look at the sheepskins in each room liking the space, and the leather accents

As I say, this is a massive subject and I have covered it in parts over the years but I hope this helps and that the links to other posts give you more reading that you might find helpful. Otherwise the book is on sale for around £12!!


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  • Ben 30th April 2020 at 3:49 pm

    Great article. I don’t think a lot of people realize the importance of choosing the color and the psychological effects that this has on you day-to-day. You mentioned it in your writing but the amount of natural light in a room dramatically alters our perception of color which should always be taken into account when choosing paint for the walls (and all other furnishings)

  • Elena 28th April 2020 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for your desire to help us out, Kate. Bought the two of your books a few weeks ago, the two latest one. Began with the 101 Interior Design Answers. Loving it. It’s so easy to look up different topics. Looking forward to reading the other book 😊

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 29th April 2020 at 10:48 am

      Oh I’m so glad thank you so much. I’m thrilled they are helping you. If you felt like leaving a review if you bought them online that would be enormously helpful x

      • Elena 29th April 2020 at 7:28 pm

        Will definitely do it 😊

  • Dale Scott Reid 28th April 2020 at 7:37 pm

    Hi Queen Kate,

    I have a colour palette dilemma in our 2m x 3m sized downstairs loo, my quick question is how many neutrals are too many?

    My missus and I moved into a new build and the developers chose multiple neutral finishes (grey floor/cream tiles & white walls) before we signed our lives away.

    We’re stuck with the grey floor (it continues through out the 1st floor and it’s laminate) I hate the cream tiles. The only solution I can think of is to maybe paint the tiles to remove the cream from the room to match them with a grey & a new colour for the walls.

    Any colour scheme tips for grey floors / methods of ’banning the beige’ from tiles?

    Stay safe loving the blog & podcast,

    The downstairs loo

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 29th April 2020 at 10:55 am

      I haven’t painted tiles but I know people have had a lot of success with it. Also tile stickers which might be a way to introduce some pattern to the space. If you are removing the cream then grey goes with all the colours on the spectrum so you don’t have to stick to grey tiles too. And you can paint the walls any colour you like. Also downstairs loos are the perfect place to really let rip with the decor. You could wallpaper the walls and ceiling and then paint the tiles in a plain colour that goes with the wallpaper and you will probably hardly notice the floor. Jungle greens or bold florals might be a good way to go. Or a fabulous stripe which will work on the ceiling.

      • Kate Watson-Smyth 29th April 2020 at 11:08 am

        And then, as if by magic, a press release drops into my inbox from Annie Sloan, expert in all things paint, talking about painting tiles. She suggests using her Chalk paint but warns that as tiles are non porous the drying time will be longer than usual. Leave plenty of time between coats and even longer before sealing with her Chalk Paint Lacquer. She says you will need two coats of lacquer on floor tiles for maximum durability – I would try two on wall tiles as it’s near water and around a basin. The full curing time for the lacquer is 14 days, she says, so be careful during this time if you are using the space not to chip or scratch the tiles. Hope that helps.

  • Jo 28th April 2020 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks for this post- i really struggle with telling if a colour is warm or cold. But maybe it is just practice that I need….I will keep trying.
    Just bought both of your books. I cannot wait for them to arrive!

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 29th April 2020 at 10:56 am

      Thank you so much. I hope you will like them. Have a play with paint cards – take one you know is cool and start putting warm colours wtih it and see how you feel and if you think they go. Listen to your instinct.

  • Janet Whincup 28th April 2020 at 9:12 am

    Very interesting read and I love all the photos that you’ve featured today. They all work well and are inspiring.
    We redecorated our home in 2015 using advice from my local designer friend, your blogs and your Shades of Grey book and still love it’s calming effects. We moved away from a warm deeper yellowy scheme so we made a bold change across to a soft grey with some toning sage RobRyan wallpaper. And anyway as you’ve found, if after a while you are jaded with a colour, then repaint. Thank you.

    • Cathryn 28th April 2020 at 1:31 pm

      I followed your link to your blog on greys. It was so delightful to see Enidcat as a kitten.

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