Discover the art and science of harmoniously blending warm and cool colors in your home decor to create attractive, interesting, and balanced decor.
This is such an important question for every home decorator to answer. The short answer is yes, you can mix warm and cool colors in decor. But the trick is knowing how. Let’s talk about how to mix warm and cool color and get it right!
We should back way up because there is a back story to mixing warm and cool colors when we decorate.
First of all, there are a few things you need to know and understand about warm and cool colors. And when you learn these things, your decorating will look so pretty because of it!
Let’s dig right in…
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE COLOR WHEEL
A color wheel is a sophisticated tool that arranges colors in a circular format, depicting the various relationships between different hues.
For this post, I’m using the color wheel to illustrate two important things…
- the warm colors on the color wheel
- and the cool colors on the color wheel
The color wheel is basically broken down into warm and cool colors.
A great example in nature of a warm and cool color spectrum is a rainbow.
Purple and violet are created by blending the cool tone of blue with the warm tone of red. Although these colors lean towards the cool side of the color wheel, if a sufficient amount of red is added, violet can be perceived as warm. For our purposes today, we are considering violet to be a cool color.
The right side of the color wheel is where the warm colors live.
Colors like red, orange, and yellow are all warm. Neutrals like beige and tan are cool shades. I’ll explain later.
Warm colors often evoke a cozy and comforting mood.
Cool colors live on the left side of the color wheel.
Colors like purple, blue, and green are all cool colors. Gray is often but not always a cool shade. I’ll talk about that later too.
Cool colors tend to make us feel relaxed and serene. They are crisp and clean.
It’s important to remember that each color has a different effect on our emotions and reactions. Each color possesses a unique ability to evoke different moods and feelings within us.
Basic Color Info To Know
It’s important to know what colors in their most pure, saturated form are either warm or cool.
Here’s something interesting you probably already know…
Red, blue, and yellow are the primary colors, and all colors on the color wheel are created by mixing red, blue, and yellow together.
White is a mix of all colors. And black is the absence of color. Just so you know.
Are you with me so far?
MASS TONE AND UNDERTONES
Every color has a mass tone and an undertone.
Understanding these terms, you will start to crack the color decorating code! And it will help you mix warm and cool colors when you decorate!
Once you grasp these concepts, you’ll begin to unravel the color decorating code! This understanding will enable you to skillfully combine warm and cool colors when you decorate.
WHAT ARE MASS TONES?
A mass tone is the first color you see when you look at a color.
Here’s an example
Without any thought, say the color of the blocks below…
Going from top left to bottom right, you might say blue, blue, red, pink, yellow, yellow.
The first color you see is the MASS TONE.
Most of us who are not color blind can easily see mass tones. They are easy to figure out most of the time. Maybe the pink and light yellow are a bit harder. So if you said red or beige, you are still right!
We can figure out whether a color is warm or cool by looking at its mass tone.
UNDERTONES AND HOW THEY AFFECT COLORS
While mass tones are easy to see, undertones are not often apparent at first glance. And even with a bit of inspection, they can still be hard to figure out.
These undertones can be especially difficult to ferret out when working with neutrals and whites. But that is for another post.
Since all colors are made by combining red, blue, and yellow, the ratio of the colors mixed together to make a new color becomes very important.
Stay with me. Let’s take blue, for example…
The bar going horizontally across the top blocks of the infographic is true primary blue.
In the top bar, a weak saturation of green (cool color) was laid over the primary blue. See how adding a little green undertone to blue changes its color?
And I did the same, using yellow. A weak saturation of yellow was laid over the primary blue color to produce a warmer shade of blue.
The bottom two blocks show how undertones of warm and cool colors have huge effects on primary blue. This is true for any color.
Undertones are major players when it comes to creating color. Blue is still a cool color no matter what the undertones are, but the undertones can make blue feel a little warmer or cooler.
With a little practice, you can figure out the warm or cool undertones of any color. This is so important to know if you want to decorate with both warm and cool colors in your home.
ANOTHER UNDERTONE EXAMPLE
Color theory plays a vital role in the beauty and cohesive look of a room.
Here’s an easy way to see what the undertones in a color are.
To find the undertones in a color hold it up to its mass tone. The truest red, yellow, blue, green, or purple. Think of the truest of these colors in a box of crayons.
You should be able to see what colors are hiding under the mass tone? Are they warm or cool?
The center colors in the infographic above are mass tones for blue, green, and red. The left color blocks are warmer because they have a warm undertone. This moves the mass tone to the warmer side of the color spectrum.
The color blocks on the right side of the infographic have cooler undertones added to the center mass tone color. And that moves the colors on the right side to the cooler side of the color spectrum.
But remember, a cool color will always be cool, and a warm color will always be warm no matter what undertone is added to them.
Look at the red blocks…
The more yellow (warm color) added to the mass tone red, the warmer it looks. If we added even more yellow, this red will eventually turn orange.
The more blue (cool color) added to the mass tone red, the more magenta and eventually purple it will become.
Can You Mix Warm And Cool Colors When Decorating?
This is THE BIG question!
The answer is a resounding YES! However, knowing the right mix is crucial.
Combining warm and cool colors in a room keeps the room interesting, but you will want to strike a balance between the two.
Here’s an easy way to mix warm and cool colors so a room is interesting…
WALLS AND BIG FURNISHINGS
This is a super easy way to mix warm and cool colors. It is not detailed or does not go into color theory in depth, but it is a good rule of thumb for the home decorator.
Your walls and big items in your room should all be warm or cool. Don’t mix these unless you have a trained eye or are a color theory savant!
I hear from so many readers saying, “Something is not right” with a room. I ask them if they considered undertones when they decorated? No matter what decor we bring into a room, we should always consider undertones! And the first undertones to consider are the paint we put on the walls in a room and the undertones of the big items in it.
My home is full of warm-toned neutrals and creamy whites. All the walls (paint colors) and foundation furnishings also have warm tones. So my mass tones and undertones all work together!
Mixing In Opposite Undertones
Once all the big items in a room are happily working together, it is now time to add a bit of interest and some good tension to a room by adding in a bit of the opposite undertone.
Decorating with a small amount of opposite undertones creates interest in a room. Adding both warm and cool colors creates this fantastic thing called tension!
Think of a violin. When the tension on the strings is just right, the strings play a beautiful song! When the tension on the strings is too tight or too loose and just not right, a violin sounds squeaky and out of tune.
Same in decorating. We need to strike the right tension between warm and cool colors and undertones to create beauty too! When warm and cool colors are not balanced in a room, the room seems “off”. That beautiful balance is called tension. And tension creates interest and drama.
Here’s another rule of thumb to help get the mix of warm and cool colors in a room…
The 80/20 Rule
When mixing warm and cool colors in a room, strike a beautiful balance using 80% of warm or cool colors and 20 % of the other.
My favorite way to do this is to add a mix of warm and cool pillows to my sofas or chairs. Another way to mix undertones is through accent chairs and accessories.
This little stylized floral chair is a great example of cool and warm colors mixing together to create a nice balance.
It is such a versatile chair that it has found a home in a couple bedrooms, my office, and my sunroom. It has just enough warmed-up gray (remember that gray is still a cool color no matter how warmed up it is) to make all the warm tones in my home come alive!
Personally, I find it challenging to live with gray when it dominates a room as the primary color. Its cool and impersonal nature doesn’t resonate well with me. This highlights how color can have a profound impact on our emotions and experiences. Nevertheless, I’ve discovered that a warmed-up gray works wonderfully as an accent color in my warm-toned home. It adds just enough tension to make the room more interesting.
A great example of this warm/cool tone balance is in our living room.
This area of my living room is filled with warm tones. To introduce tension and contrast, I incorporated a blue/gray pillow. While the blue hue in the pillow remains cool, it has subtle warm undertones, referred to as a “muddy blue” in decorating terminology. Surprisingly, this cool-toned pillow looks beautifully with the warm tones in my living room, creating an interesting, balanced aesthetic.
Practice Finding Undertones In Your Home
When a room in your home seems “off” but you don’t know why it might be the undertones! They play a very big role in creating beauty, interest, and cohesiveness in any room in your home.
So practice finding the mass tone and the undertones in your furnishings. And follow all these easy tips for creating harmony and beauty in your home.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a warm color scheme and a cool color scheme in interior design?
Look at a color wheel, like the one at the beginning of this post, for an easy visual. Colors like red, burgundy, yellow, orange, brown, beige, brown, cognac, cream, and warm neutrals are warm colors and are part of a warm color palette. Colors like blue, navy, violet, deep purple, green, gray, and other cool shades are part of a cool color palette.
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