5 Steps to a Perfect Palette: Analyzing a Color Scheme

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The owner of this Santa Fe residence used American Clay’s Tucson Gold mixed with straw on her fireplace.

No element of interior design is more important than color. Yet with nontoxic paints in a full range of colors, a host of natural fiber upholstery and drapery fabrics, and eco-friendly wallcoverings, the possibilities for beautiful color in the natural home are overwhelming. Fortunately, with just a little time and thought, you can find the shades and hues that are just right for your personal space.

Step 1: Train your eye.

Johannes Itten, the famed Bauhaus color theorist, reminded his students that even the naturally gifted eye requires color training. Teaching yourself to be more sensitive to varying hues requires the patience to notice details in daily life. First, seek inspiration in the natural world, beginning with your own ­surroundings–especially during a change of seasons. For in­stance, study the changing greens of spring trees from bud to new leaf to full leaf. In addition, use your usual rounds of shopping and errands as field trips for color study. See what pleases and surprises you in the supermarket produce section, the flower shop, or the antique store. Look carefully at the arrangements of apples and plums, roses and irises, old woods and metals.

Then put yourself in the hands of the color geniuses, the painters. Spend a few afternoons at the art museum. A bowl of fruit or flowers seen through the eyes of the Dutch Masters will train your memory’s eye for color. A Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot or J.M.W. Turner painting can forever change the way you look at the sky.

Step 2: Visit the paint store.

Find a paint store that sells a line of environmentally friendly paints. As you look over the array of colors, you’ll see that ­simply calling a color “blue” or “red” or “green” hardly begins to tell the story. The basic colors, or hues, actually appear in families, and the families imperceptibly shade into one another. At one end of the spectrum of blues are the deeply soothing blue-violets and periwinkles: flower colors, evening sky colors. At the other end are the jewel colors of aquamarine and turquoise with their notes of green.

Go ahead and pick paint cards–the ones your eye keeps coming back to–out of the deck. Be open minded, be bold, and don’t worry about what will go where. There are no right or wrong colors for any room or any use or any person. Disregard the division of colors into “warm” and “cool.” Response to color is personal. What matters most is how a particular color makes you feel.

Step 3: Create a color scheme.

Flat paint chips can’t capture the luminous colors in nature or art, but the complexities and subtleties of colors reveal themselves when they’re blended into a scheme and develop their properties with texture.

Maybe your field trip to the market led you to marvel at the blend of colors in a single fruit. Consider an almost-ripe black plum, for example. A rich and complex scheme is hidden within that little sphere. There’s deep-purple skin, of course, but see how the flesh gradates from tints of gold-green at the stone through pale and deeper golds to a hint of brilliant pink just under the skin. You can be flexible when placing elements in a scheme like this: You might use golds and greens for large areas and provide accents with dark plum and pink, along with the rich brown-gold of the seed.

Gather and assemble samples of all the elements–fabrics, carpet, wallcoverings, and furniture–along with your paint chips. You’ll see that different fibers, surfaces, and weaves reflect similar hues differently. Allow light to play over the various textures.

Your color scheme may emerge from a single source: an Oriental or Navajo rug, a kimono, a painting. Pull your colors out of the piece; it’s like working in a color partnership with the artist who created it.

Step 4: Test your colors.

Narrow your paint choices to a few possibilities, then buy a quart of each. Paint blocks of color two feet square on each of two walls. Let them dry and look at them day and evening, in natural and artificial light. Don’t skip this step. Real paint on large areas is never the same as a sample on a card. And don’t forget to plan your lighting before you paint because lighting always affects color.

To complete this testing step, reassemble your favorite choices of fabrics and carpets, and choose the ones that make up the most pleasing overall scheme. Harmony is the goal, and you’ll be surprised by some of your choices. A favorite fabric doesn’t really fit, gold gives way to lemony yellow, the rich red in your antique rug finds a bright echo on a small carved chair.

Step 5: Get into action.

Go ahead and paint, order your fabrics and carpet, and reupholster or buy new furniture. Once the major elements are in place, you can choose the art objects and decorative pieces that bring the crowning color touches to your room. Buy–or make–one bright pot or bowl or a brilliantly colored toss pillow. Frame something in your new colors for a wall. When the season changes, cast your eye around your beautiful room and think about adding, subtracting, or changing a few of those touches to reflect the subtle change of color and light in the air. Your natural palette, reflected in your rooms, is yours, an ever-changing, ever-richer kaleidoscope to gladden your spirit.

Martha Ruschman contributed to this article.