The Psychology of Color

Learn the connection between color and mood, and how the right color scheme can change how your home makes you feel.

colorful area rug

Think of area rugs as a fifth wall when it comes to color selection.

Photo by Raya Carlisle

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Our homes are a reflection of our tastes: Most of us choose décor and furnishings based on our personalities and preferences. But nothing establishes the personality of a home and its owners more quickly than the colors we use—on the walls, in the furniture, and in the pillows, bedding, rugs and other accent pieces.

The colors used in a home quickly set the mood and can, in turn, affect the mood of its inhabitants—and visitors, too. Light colors can make rooms seem open and airy; they are subtle, quieting the mind and the mood. Darker colors can make rooms appear smaller; these colors can be sophisticated, but they can also make us feel down, so using them strategically is important.

We really can’t formulate any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to color. First, “there are varying degrees, intensities, values, shades, tints and tones” of every color, says Leatrice Eiseman, a color specialist based on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and author of nine books on color including Colors for Your Every Mood. What’s more, everyone has their own personal color tastes, which must be taken into account when designing a space, says Kentucky-based interior decorator Liz Toombs, founder of Polka Dots & Rosebuds Interiors. “Everyone associates different feelings with different colors, so you have to balance out your likes and dislikes before you choose colors for your home or your office,” she says. San Francisco-based interior designer Kriste Michelini, founder of Kriste Michelini Interiors, likens color in the home to how people dress: “Some people love vibrant colors, others feel more comfortable wearing neutrals. It’s the same in the home.” Certain fundamental parameters—to follow, in our color guide—often hold true in homes, though. Keep these guidelines in mind, along with your own personal preferences, when decorating your space.

Passionate Red

For many, red raises a room’s energy level: It stirs excitement, is a symbol of love, and can be an appetite stimulant, Eiseman says.

Red can also feel aggressive. A recent study published by Durham University in England found that men who wear red send out a signal that they’re angry (red has traditionally been thought to stimulate anger in animals such as bulls, too, although they are actually color blind). One University of Texas study found that employees in a red office reported higher negative mood characteristics than workers in a blue-green office. But a bit of red—according to a University of British Columbia study—can help people stay focused and have a positive effect on memory.

If you want to use red, try warm, deep reds such as claret or garnet, Eiseman says. These winelike shades work well in dining rooms or kitchens, as red is thought to draw people together and stimulate conversation and hunger. Red is typically too intense for bedrooms, but it can work well in a powder room, Michelini says. “Powder rooms are small, and people don’t spend a lot of time in them, so you can do something bold and different there—as long as it’s cohesive with the rest of the house.”

Because it’s such a strong color, red makes a perfect accent, Toombs says. “You can use it in smaller doses, in bedding, pillows, curtains or even a red side chair,” she says. “There are a lot of ways to get color into a room, and sometimes you only need a pop of color to get the desired effect.”

Calming Pink

Pink is considered the most romantic color and is often associated with femininity. It has been found beneficial in reducing anger and anxiety, which is the reason why, years ago, some prisons in the U.S. and Canada were painted pink as part of an experiment to keep prisoners calm. Soft pinks are essentially “reds with the passion—and the emotional reaction that’s associated with red—taken out of them,” Eiseman says. “They’re more romantic and not as sensual.” Pink works well on bedroom walls, and in yoga studios or meditation spaces. It’s also a soothing accent color in bedding, furnishings or wall art in powder rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms.

Cheery Yellow

To many, yellow captures the joy of sunshine and communicates happiness. “Yellow can be a marvelous spirit-lifter,” Eiseman says. “There’s an instantaneous reaction to yellow as a representative of sunlight, and people are naturally attracted to sunlight.”

Yellow—particularly soft, buttery yellows, which are more calming than bright, vibrant yellows—is perfect for kitchens, dining rooms and bathrooms, where happy colors are energizing and uplifting. In halls, entries and small spaces, yellow can feel expansive and welcoming. It’s also a great color option for rooms that don’t get a lot of sunlight, as it adds warmth to these rooms.

“I have yellow on my walls at home, in the entryway and in the living room,” Eiseman says. “When you walk into my home, you’re greeted by that color and get a sunny, warm feeling.”

Serene Blue

Many people find blue among the most calming colors. “Light, soft blues and even some deep blues have a calming effect,” Eiseman says. “There’s something very meditative and calming about blues. Blue is associated with a blue sky and serene, beautiful weather, which makes us feel instantly relaxed.” That’s why this hue is considered serene—and is often recommended for bedrooms and bathrooms.

“The beauty of blue is that by changing the undertones of it, you can change someone’s emotional reaction to it,” Eiseman says. One shade of blue may be too cool and almost depressing, but adding a bit of purple or yellow can warm it up and make it happier, Eiseman says.

To encourage relaxation in social areas (family rooms, living rooms, kitchens), consider warmer blues such as periwinkle or bright blues such as cerulean or turquoise.

You might also consider blue in your office: Research by the University of British Columbia found that blue colors enhance creativity, Eiseman says.

Natural Green

Green is considered the most restful color for the eye, which makes it well-suited for almost any room in the house. In the kitchen, green cools things down (and it can also signify health, Michelini says); in a family room or living room, it encourages unwinding but has enough warmth to promote comfort and togetherness.

Green (particularly blue-green) also has a calming effect when used as a main color for decorating, which makes it a great choice for bedrooms, Michelini says. (Some also believe it can encourage fertility.)

“Green is Mother Nature’s most ubiquitous color,” Eiseman says. “I can count 13 or 14 shades of green just looking out my window. Think about the way you feel when you’re out in nature; you feel more serene and can breathe deeper.” This may be one reason people working in green offices have proven to be more satisfied with their jobs.

Sophisticated Purple

Purple, especially in its darker hues such as eggplant, is rich, dramatic, sophisticated and somewhat feminine. It’s associated with luxury as well as creativity—which is why Toombs chose pale purple as the color of her home office. Lighter versions of purple, such as lavender and lilac, bring the same restful quality to bedrooms as blue does, but without feeling chilly.

“Purple can be edgy, beautiful and luxurious at the same time,” Michelini says. She loves to mix purple tones with gray shades.

Enthusiastic Orange

Orange evokes excitement and enthusiasm—it’s an energetic color. While not a good hue for a living room or for bedrooms (it’s often too vibrant and stimulating), it’s perfect for exercise rooms and kitchens.

“Orange is a mix of red, with all its dynamism and sensuality and energy, and yellow, with its friendliness and happiness,” Eiseman says. “It’s happier and much less aggressive than red, and there are so many variations of it.” Terra-cotta and other earthy orange tones tend to be the most palatable and versatile, particularly in kitchens where the color orange is thought to help stimulate appetites.

Bright oranges also make a perfect accent color, Toombs says. Try it on pillows, dishes, towels, rugs, in flowers and even as a stand-alone chair or couch.

Balancing Neutrals

Neutrals (black, gray, white and brown) are the most flexible: Use them as a base and you can add color to liven things up. The vibrant color pops can always be subtracted, if necessary, to tone things back down to the more neutral baseline. Neutral colors are typically soft and quieting to the mind and mood. White can be seen as a symbol of cleanliness and innocence, as well as of sophistication (though pure white can cause eyestrain when used extensively, Eiseman says). Black or deep brown, which can act like a black, is best used in small doses as an accent. Some experts maintain that every room needs a touch of black or deep brown to ground the color scheme and provide depth.

Earth tones are classic neutrals, Eiseman says, and they can be used throughout homes to provide a grounding influence. “Think about rusts, terra-cottas and browns, even the deepest chocolate brown,” she says. “These are all neutrals that work well in the home.”

Neutrals can also help rooms feel more cozy and intimate. “Chocolate brown, particularly, is a good neutral for making a room more intimate,” Toombs says. Grays and beige blends are also popular neutrals right now.

As you design your spaces, consider balancing the zest of colors with the calming tones of neutrals to create harmony. “Colors are trendy, but neutrals are very restful for the eye,” Michelini says. “They’re classic and timeless and very livable. If you use neutrals for walls and even floors, you can always add that pop of color with accent pieces.”

Find suggestions for decorating with color in How to Use Color in Your Home.


Our Advice: Best Paints

You’ve probably heard about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in conventional wall paints. These toxic compounds are emitted into the air at room temperature, and they can trigger eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; nausea; damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous systems; and cancer, according to the EPA. Fortunately, safer options abound. Check out some of our favorites.

ZERO-VOC PAINTS: The best conventional paints are zero-VOC (preferable to “low-VOC”). In the early days of no-VOC, colors were often limited, but today color options abound. Note: Paints are often verified zero-VOC when white; colored pigments may still contain VOCs.

Good choices: Benjamin Moore Aura, Farrow & Ball, Colorhouse, Devine Color

CLAY PAINTS: Clay paints are made with natural clay and colored with mineral pigments. These sustainable finishes offer a beautiful, natural look and include no petrochemicals. They also improve air quality and are naturally fire-retardant.

Good choices: American Clay, Bioshield, Green Planet Paints, Unearthed Paints

MILK PAINTS: Used since ancient times (they’ve been found on ancient Egyptian artifacts) and extremely durable, milk paints employ powdered milk and lime to bind pigments for lasting color. They’re completely nontoxic and offer a slightly translucent, antique feel. Milk paint’s uses range from a solid color to a stain, depending how much water you add. Note: Some petrochemical paints in heritage colors are marketed as “milk paints”; real milk paint is sold as a powder.

Good choices: Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint, Old-Fashioned Milk Paint, The Real Milk Paint Co.