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Warm Colors, Cool Colors

September 30 2009

Red is hot and blue is cold, right? If your knowledge of colors is limited to the clues provided by the knobs on your bathroom sink, you are not alone. For the most part, careful consideration of color theory can be left to designers and other experts. But a basic understanding of the difference between warm and cool colors – and the ways they can work in your home – can help you make more informed choices when you’re getting ready to paint.

What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

In the very simplest of terms, warm colors are lively while cool colors are more calming and relaxing. Warm colors are typically reds, oranges and yellows and cool colors are typically blues, greens and violets.

Different colors convey different emotions, which is why distinguishing between warm and cool colors and selecting colors based on the function of the room you are painting can be important.

Different areas of a home can therefore be better suited to warm or cool colors. For instance, for spaces in your home where there is more activity – like a family room or kitchen – warm colors tend to be more appropriate because they convey a sense of vitality and action. For cool colors, many people think more of bedrooms or a study – places where there is more of a need to concentrate and where warm colors might be distracting.

That said, there is no hard and fast rule that requires all of the bedrooms in a house to be painted in cool colors like blues and greens. Some people want their bedrooms to be big and airy and remind them of the sky when they wake up. In which case, cool colors are the perfect choice. Others want to feel warm and cozy, which would suggest a warmer color choice.

Consider Light Reflection Value, Too

Some designers reject the temptation to choose a room’s color choice based on its function. “It’s not really about saying, ‘In this room you need to have pink because you are going to be sewing in there,’” says Deborah Hattoy, president of Scottsdale, AZ–based Creative Color Consultants. “It’s really about how not to get over-stimulation or under-stimulation when you walk into a room.”

Hattoy, a member of the International Association of Color Consultants (IACC), explains the organization’s approach to color and energy. “We consider light reflection value, or LRV, with black being zero, which is the absence of all color, and white being 100 percent.”  A good rule of thumb in approaching any room, says Hattoy, is to aim for a 60/40/20 relationship between floors, furniture, and walls. “So when you enter a room, the floors are darkest, the furniture is lighter, and the walls are lighter still,” she says.

This simple formula, Hattoy says, creates a balance between unity and complexity that is very pleasing to the eye and universally appealing. And appealing to a mass audience is an important component of the work her firm does decorating model homes, which constitutes a large percentage of its business. But light reflection values needn’t be mystifying to the layperson – they are actually listed on the back of paint chips provided at hardware stores, she adds.

Strive for an Overall Interplay of Warm and Cool

What designers do seem to agree on is that the most pleasing homes are those that include a mix of warm and cool colors. “You definitely shouldn’t stick with either or,” says McGuire. “All warm is going to get all smothering feeling and all cool just won’t feel like a home,” she warns.

In preparing a home for sale, colors that have an overall warm feeling, in general, will make potential buyers feel comfortable, according to Berg. But she warns against a palette that is too warm, which can be over-stimulating. “So don’t go crazy with tangerine orange ceilings and fire-engine red walls, or you’ll have people running for the door,” she advises.

Architectural Style Does Not Dictate Color Choice

The particular architectural style and features of a home should always be taken into consideration when you are selecting paint colors, but a “traditional” or “contemporary” home does not dictate a certain color palette. “Unless you are doing an historical restoration project, it’s most important to create a mood with colors rather than get hung up on what colors are right for a particular architectural style,” Berg says.

Berg rejects the current perception that modern homes should be painted in cool colors. “Cool colors in modern spaces are just a trend,” she says. “Remember, if you are trying t o sell your home, you want the space to feel inviting and ‘homey.’” Using a lot of cold grays and distant blues can leave potential buyers feeling more like they are in a museum than in their future home, she says.

Valspar color consultant McGuire agrees that architectural design should not dictate color selection. “I think every single architectural design can look great in a mix of warm and cool colors,” she says. “It really is how you want your space to function.”