Use Nature as Your Color Palette

Choosing a color scheme is one of the most important decorating decisions we make. Letting our love of nature create palettes can make color selection fun and nourishing.


Ecotones, in which two different types of landscape meet, offer tangible examples of how to use contrasting colors. At the seashore, the cool grays and blues of the ocean combine with the warm browns of the sand. This color scheme inspired the decor below.

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The Old Man said “Ah” and smiled as he looked at the earth, for she was very beautiful—truly the most beautiful thing he had made so far.

The perception of nature as beautiful is universal and constant. Through the ages, poetry and paintings have glorified the phenomena of the natural world. Love of nature is in our bones and in our collective memories. The majesty of mountains, the pleasures of a pond, the fecundity of a forest—all evoke sensations of well being.

As a colorist, nature is my inspiration and teacher. Nature is the master colorist, combining colors, textures, and light into breathtakingly perfect palettes. Go for a walk through a meadow at noon in springtime and experience how, magically, all of nature’s colors are in the right proportion, value, and intensity. Although many are bright, these colors always enhance each other, never overpower. Wander along a lake on a misty winter morning. Although muted, these quieter colors are interesting and balanced.

How can we become nature’s students and use her wisdom to colorize our homes?

Consider the Light in the Room

Nature’s colors are changed by light. Morning light is soft and warm, contrasts of color gentle. By midday, natural light is full-spectrum, and contrasts become intense and strong. In the late afternoon, the light has softened to a golden glow, which deepens in the twilight toward warm reds with violet overtones.

When you’re selecting colors, consider the room’s function, the amount of natural light, which direction the light comes from, and the time of day the room will get the most use. Make twelve-inch-square samples of potential color candidates and move them around the room, learning about the effects of light on color on different walls at various times of day. Is the color too bright during midday? Too dark in the evening? Keep sampling until your eyes say “just right with the light.”

Create Visual Variety

In nature, surface variations create texture, patterns, and nuances that enrich and enhance colors. Use this lesson to greatest effect in a monochromatic combination that explores variations of one color. Subtlety is key, yet too little contrast and variety can be dull. For example, a meadow of grasses can be monochromatic, yet the variation of shapes and textures and the interplay of light and shadow assure interest. In a monochromatic room, achieve this same interest by using a rich variety of subtly different shades of one color from cool to warm, from muted to intense, from dark to light. Mimic natural nuances such as a forest’s dappled light by using decorative paint effects—ragging, color washing, or glazing—to break up color and provide visual variety.

Pay Attention to Nearby Colors

Nature’s colors are affected by their proximity to other colors and by the light in which we see them. Putting two colors together changes the way each looks in isolation. A neutral gray can appear warm against a cool blue or cool against a warm rust. The most dynamic of all combinations are complementary colors. Nothing makes a green greener than being close to red.

Color Scheming

Color has four properties: hue, value, intensity, and temperature.

Hue is just another word for color. Red, blue, lime green—all are hues.

Value is the lightness or darkness. Pink is a light value of red, rose a medium value, and burgundy a dark value.

Intensity or chroma is a color’s purity or strength—its brightness or dullness. High-intensity colors are vivid, whereas low-intensity colors are quiet and restful. As a color loses chroma, becoming less intense, it is said to be neutralized. Most browns are dark-value, low-intensity versions of warm colors. The true neutrals are white, black, and gray.

Temperature refers to warmth or coolness. Yellows, reds, and oranges are warm colors and are considered to advance because they appear to move toward the viewer. Cool greens, blues, and violets are known as receding colors because they seem to be farther away.

Colors harmonize when relationships of similar hues, values, and intensities create unity. Colors that are close on the color wheel are called analogous and are always harmonious. Colors opposite each other on the color wheel contrast and are known as complementary. Use contrasting colors for schemes that create excitement. For balance, distribute colors in proportions that produce an aesthetically pleasing whole.

Think About Color in Layers

As you look at a scene in nature, see how she has layered color. In a desert landscape, for example, the soil’s sandy tones are the base color that creates the overall effect. If you love desert colors, you may select a sandy color for your room’s walls. Against this background, nature uses foreground colors such as the grayed greens of cactus and the reddish browns of bark. Select from these colors for the furnishings.

Finally, nature uses accent colors, which often contrast with the foreground to stimulate liveliness. How about the bright pink of a cactus flower for pillows?

Identify the Room's Focus

Nature uses color to communicate messages about where to focus attention. Why are wildflowers in a spring meadow so bright and colorful? The colors offer a strong “notice me” signal to pollinators that increases the flower’s chance of survival. Many flower petals even bear guide marks that lead an insect or bird to the nectar.

The first rule of designing a room is to decide where you want to focus attention. Is it on the fireplace? On a beautiful view? Give this focal point notice-me qualities by helping it stand apart from its background. You can do this with color by introducing contrast of hue, value, or intensity (see “Color Scheming,” left). Putting a different color on a fireplace wall, for instance, will lead the eye to the fireplace. Keeping color muted on the walls around a painting will direct attention straight to the stronger colors of the art.

In the same vein, you can camouflage less desirable features of a room, such as awkward corners or exposed pipes, by painting them to blend into their surroundings. Any chameleon can tell you that!

Pay Attention to Dimension and Proportion

In nature, the temperature, value, or amount of a color can change an object’s dimension. Warm colors seem to advance and cool colors recede. A yellow flower moves toward us when seen against a field of cooler hues. Paint a far-away end wall in a warm color, and it will appear to come closer. If a ceiling feels low, paint it in a cool tint of white, and it will recede; if too high, use a warmer, deeper shade.

The value of an object appears to change its size. Lighter or paler colors appear to expand, while darker colors tend to contract. Use pastels to make a room appear larger or a deep color to make it feel cozy. The larger the area, the more intense or strong a color will appear. To help keep bright colors under control, allow them to work their magic in small doses.

Color Confidence

“Fear of color is the number one decorating mistake.” —interior designer Anthony Baratta

To many people, selecting colors seems mysterious, even intimidating. A few lucky ones appear to have a natural aptitude or eye for knowing the right colors. Consciously or not, they are applying color principles that anyone without a natural eye can master. While colors defined by systems such as the color wheel assume that colors are solid hues—uniform, flat, and applied to a smooth surface—in reality, nature’s colors are always changing, creating subtle variations through texture, pattern, and light.

Whenever I meet with a client to develop a color scheme, I ask a few questions that you may want to ask yourself.

• How comfortable are you with color? Do you stick with beige because you are afraid of using the wrong color? Or do you just prefer a neutral scheme?

• What are your favorite colors? Would you be happiest, colorwise, living in a garden? By the sea? In a forest? In the desert?

• Go for a mental walk in one of these locations. What colors do you like? Is it the variety of one hue that attracts you, such as a mixture of shades of greens that you see in a forest? Or do you like the way different colors look together, the way the warm color of sand looks with the cooler blue of the sea? Perhaps it’s the muted, more neutral colors of the desert landscape.

• Which is your favorite season? What colors of that season attract you? Can you describe what you like about that particular palette?

• Go for a walk and bring natural treasures home. Note how they work together, how the colors harmonize or contrast, how the different textures create variety. By identifying your favorite naturescape and looking closely for inspiration in your finds, you’ll learn about your personal color preferences.