Colour Education

Color Language

Get an overview of the basic vocabulary of color, including terms such as hue, saturation, and value as well as the differences between analogous and complementary colors.

A basic color vocabulary includes the following terms:


Hue identifies the general family of a color, such as red, yellow, blue or green. The traditional color wheel is made up of twelve color families: red, red-orange, orange, yellow-range, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue-red-violet, violet and blue-violet.

Color Wheel

Colors on the opposite side of the wheel from each other are called complementary colors. In combination, these create striking contrasts. For less contrast, choose colors next to each other on the color wheel, which are called analogous colors. Choosing colors of different tints within one color family creates a monochromatic color scheme.

Warm or Cool?

Different colors in the same family may be described as being "warm" or "cool." Colors with yellow undertones will seem warmer, while the same color with blue or red undertones will appear cool. Cool colors — blue, green, violet — invite relaxation and thought. Warm colors — red, orange, yellow — encourage conversation and play. Sherwin-Williams color experts suggest using both warm and cool colors in rooms where you desire balance and variety.


Value describes how light or dark a specific color may be. On Sherwin-Williams color strips, lighter values are at the top, mid-tone value are in the middle and darker values are at the bottom. When you combine colors from a single color strip, you're creating a monochromatic color scheme — perfect for creating a sophisticated, spacious look in a single room.

How to make perfect color choices

Color Basics in a Nutshell

Light or pale colors can make rooms feel larger. They create a sense of openness – an impression that the space is larger than it actually is. This is one reason why whites are so often used on ceilings: They make the ceiling seem higher.

However, bright whites can also create the illusion that adjacent colors are darker, so they may not always be the best choice for ceilings. Off-whites with a hint of cream, or whites tinted with just a touch of the wall color, may bring more harmony to the room.

Many dark colors – or colors that are deep in tone – can make a room appear smaller, providing an illusion of intimacy or coziness. These kinds of powerful, more intense shades – sometimes called accent colors – create a visual perception that walls and ceilings are closer than they really are. They are ideal for accenting architectural features, such as framing a window. If your client has an impressive exterior view, framing the window with a dramatic color will "pull the eye" and help make the view a focal point in the room.

As always, though, there are exceptions to every rule. When dramatic colors are used, contrasting colors can help give definition to a room, especially when the contrasting shades outline molding, window trim or other architectural elements. White always works in this case, but off-white or a contrasting neutral can fit the bill nicely, too. 

Cool or Warm?

Besides light and dark, colors are also classified as being warm or cool. Cool colors – like the blues, greens and grays found in nature – are restful and calming.

That makes them popular choices for a customer who seeks shades that set the stage for relaxation. Cool shades, even the deepest ones, tend to make the wall recede, giving the sensation of more space. In addition, these colors can make the room "feel" cooler from a temperature standpoint.

Warm colors – yellows, reds and browns – do just the opposite. They are considered cheerful, sunny colors, making them good picks for rooms when a pleasant upbeat atmosphere is your client's goal. This is one reason many kitchens have been traditionally painted yellow.

An aside on yellow: Though many yellows are indeed bright and cheerful, yellow has a high light reflectance value - the reflection from painted surfaces that causes colors to act as a secondary light source. Consequently, bright yellows can sometimes be visually irritating. Coverage may be an issue, too, though many of those concerns are easily addressed by using the right primer coat before applying the yellow topcoat. 

How Low Light Affects Wall Color

The type of artificial lighting in a room will affect the perception of the wall color, and should be considered when making paint choices. Here is a quick guide to the effects of the most popular lighting sources:

•Incandescent lights cast warm yellow or amber tones that can intensify wall colors.

•Standard fluorescent fixtures bring out cool tones and green casts. Warm fluorescents, while not as rich as incandescent sources, add warm casts.

•Halogen lighting is bright and white and distorts color less than any other artificial light source. It does, however, tend to cool colors a bit.

Color Generation

Choosing appropriate colors for the right audience is an important part of the equation. While color preference is often highly personal, research has made it possible for color experts to make general observations about the color preferences of the major demographic age groups.

Here is a look at the four major age demographic groups and their color preferences:

The Mature Market

The colors that surround people have a profound effect on mood and well-being. Individuals over 65 compose the Mature Market, and because they may be retired or less active, they often spend a great deal of time indoors.

To meet the needs of the Mature Market, it's important to seek out color combinations that are functional, enjoyable and comfortable. Instead of muddy colors like khaki, fresh and cheerful ones such as buttery yellows, clear blues, fresh pinks and warm whites are preferred.

Don't avoid all greens, though. Studies show that people report less stomach upset when surrounded with lush foliage colors even while under stress. For the Mature Market, cleaner hues of green jade, for instance, are preferable to avocado. 

The Baby Boomers

Leave it to the Baby Boomers — the 76 million people born between 1945 and 1964 — to seek self-expression and spirituality from their color choices. For Baby Boomers, home is a sanctuary, a place for artistic expression and relaxation as well as inspiration. Baby Boomers are drawn to soothing colors that cool and refresh the spirit: sky blue azures, cleansing blues enhanced with purple tones, and intense, iridescent blues with the slightest tinge of green.

Favorite neutrals are chameleon shades that take on the undertones of colors around them. These could be grays married with plum or green, or perhaps yellow-green undertones that bridge the gap from gray to beige. 

Generation X

Generation Xers — those born between 1964 and 1980 — are old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, but have primarily lived in a global economy. So it's not surprising, as they experiment with styles from around the world, that Gen-Xers show strong acceptance of the global color palette.

For this age group, popular colors include violet and indigo hues, or exotic greens from the Australian landscape. Asian reds also add drama to neutral spaces awash in contrasting textures. 

Generation Next

For teenagers, cool sophistication is the design goal. Faux finishes can be useful in teen rooms to hide a multitude of sins and add drama and sophistication to the décor. Children delight in rich, tropical hues and neon-like colors, especially green, yellow and purple. Sports team colors and flower garden shades are always popular for children's spaces, as are murals and other whimsical color and decorating ideas. 

There has even been research on the visual preferences of babies. High-contrast colors and simple patterns that encourage scanning, focusing, orienting and pattern recognition are not only favorites, but also help to stimulate physical and cognitive development. Studies indicate that reds and blues are the colors preferred by infants.

Though reactions to color are psychologically and culturally induced to some degree, age does make a difference in how people respond to color. That's one reason why color preferences change over time as people move through the life cycle.