How to Use Color in a Remodel Project

color and design in remodeling

How to use color in a remodel project is best understood with a little background in the understanding of color in history, color in physics and physiology, the language of color, color families, and color schemes.

Color is an essential part of the completion of your remodel project but it is best to have a clear idea of the colors you intend to incorporate. This is because it will heavily influence your selection of finish materials, such as cabinetry, flooring, wall tile, and countertops.

So to offer a good basic understanding of the subject, this post covers: 

1: Color in History 
2: Physics of Color
3: Physiology of Color
4: Language of Color
5: Color Families
6: Color Schemes

Everyone has preconceived ideas about color. This is to be expected and is not at all a bad thing. In fact, many cultures have their own color associations.

However, before making color selections for your remodel project you might later regret, we would encourage you to gain an understanding as to why you and others feel about color and how color may best be used in creating the desired effect for your remodel project.

Color in History

cave painting color and how to use color in a remodel projectPeople have been affected and intrigued by color and its use throughout history. 

Many thousands of years ago they used primitive earth pigments and charcoal as colors in the paintings that decorated the walls of their caves. But it was not until the 17th Century and Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726) that color received any kind of scientific definition.

Isaac Newton and the Physics of Color

isaac newton and colorNewton used the diagram below to document his experiment that showed a ray of white light divided into its component rainbow colors by one prism and then reconstituted into white light by a second prism.

This was revolutionary because the prevailing theory at the time was that color was a mixture of light and dark and that a prism in some way simply added color to light. 

Robert Hooke, a contemporary of Newton, subscribed to this theory and placed color on a scale from brilliant red, which he held to be white light with the least amount of darkness added, to dull blue, which he held to be the last stage before black, at which point light was completely extinguished by darkness.

newton color wheelNewton’s use of the second prism to reconstitute the visible color spectrum back into white light effectively proved this theory false.

moses harris color wheelNewton’s practical bequest to artists and designers was his arrangement of colors around a circle. The diagram at left shows the primary colors (red, yellow and blue) placed opposite their complementary colors. It shows how primary colors mix to create secondary colors and how secondary colors mix to create tertiary colors. Newton’s circular diagram of colors became the “color wheel,’” with which we are all familiar. 

Entomologist Moses Harris produced a version of the same color wheel (above right) in 1766.

Wolfgang von Goethe and the Perception of Color

goethe color wheel and how to use color in a remodel project In the 19th century Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), the German writer and scientist, studied the perceptual effects of color. 

Goethe introduced “Gestalt” to contemporary German thought, as the concept of self-actualizing wholeness in organic forms. So, for Goethe, optics and perception were opposite ends of single dynamic unity. He produced his own color wheel. 

While Newton regarded color as an objective physical phenomenon visible to the eye, Goethe viewed it as subjectively observed. Goethe sought to derive laws of color harmony and ways of characterizing the ways in which colors affect us. 

He divided colors into the “plus side” and the “minus side.” “Plus” colors, such as red and orange, tend to generate feelings of warmth, while “minus” colors, such as blue and green, generate feelings of coldness. It might be said that while Newton was about the cause of color, Goethe was about its effect.

Later Developments

Under the influence of 19th century Romanticism, artists saw color as a tool to create an emotional impact in depictions of reality. Then, under the influence of 20th century Modernism, they began using color to represent feelings and movement rather than reality. 

Swiss theorist Johann Itten (1888 – 1967) was one of the first to define ways of using color combinations and the contrasting properties of hue successfully. He explored “successive contrast.” This is the phenomenon where the human brain creates complementary afterimages of the colors it observes. An example of this is the green afterimage experienced after gazing at red. 

Itten demonstrated that people instinctively react to color harmony and discord. He found that color on its own (that is, without representing any particular object) can create dynamic perceptual experiences. And it is these dynamic experiences that the interior designer or remodeler seeks to harness.

The Physics of Color

prism color spectrum and how to use color in a remodel projectNewton’s prism mimics the rainbow in refracting white light into its spectrum of visible components, also called the spectral colors. 

Light enters the prism and is refracted by the glass. Violet is bent more than the yellow and the red and so the colors separate. Thus: The shortest visible wavelength is what we see as violet at about 380 nanometers (nm). The longest visible wavelength is what we see as red at about 760 nm.  

The wavelengths that fall between violet and red contain the other colors. The wavelengths on either side of them (infrared and ultraviolet) are invisible to the human eye.  When we see color in an object, such as a red apple, it is because the apple has absorbed all wavelengths except the 760 nm wavelength, which it reflects. Objects that are white in color are objects that reflect almost all visible wavelengths. Objects that are black absorb almost all visible wavelengths. This is why black objects tend to get hot in sunlight but white objects do not.

Physiology of Color

The physiology of color perception shows how subjective it is. Color is truly in the eye of the beholder since no two pairs of eyes see color in quite the same way. There are two main theories for our perception of color. They appear to work together.

Trichromatic Receptor Theory

Thomas Young (1773 – 1829) and later scientists hold that there are only 3 types of color receptors or cones in the retina of the eye. ‘S’ cones are most sensitive to the 445 nm wavelength, or the color blue. ‘M’ cones are most sensitive to the 535 nm wavelength, or the color green. ‘L’ cones are most sensitive to the 570 nm wavelength, or the color red. 

Opponent-Process Theory

 Ewald Hering (1834-1918) and later scientists hold that certain pairs of colors are never seen together in the same place and at the same time. For example, there are no reddish greens or yellowish blues.  On the other hand, there are yellowish greens, bluish reds, and yellowish reds. 

Hering also observed that there are distinct “complementary” patterns in the color of afterimages. If one stares at the white dot in the middle of the left-hand picture below for about 30 seconds and then shifts gaze to the black dot in the right-hand picture, the complementary colors appear and one sees the American flag. complementary visual phenomenon | Like the trichromatic receptor theory, the opponent-process theory posits 3 types of receptors. Each type is responsible for a pair of opponent color processes: a blue-yellow, a green-red, and a white-black, with one color on one end and the other on the other end.

Thus blue light will excite the blue-yellow pair toward the blue end. A yellow light will excite the same receptors toward the yellow end. When both blue and yellow lights are present simultaneously, one sees gray only because blue and yellow cancel out the perception.

Learned Color Perception 

 Our perception of color influences our daily lives and the way they are managed and organized. 

This is why traffic signals are uniformly colored. Traffic signals rely on a person’s ability to memorize colors and associate them with certain functions. 

And in the world of retail business people become familiar with the colors associated with brand name items. 

Learned perceptions and memories of color may also account for differing associations and values put on color by different societies and cultures. This may well influence the selection of colors for your remodeling project.

The Language of Color

With the language of color, we really dig into how to use color in a remodel project

While wavelength explains the physical dimensions of color as visible light, there are also psychological or perceived dimensions. These are defined as hue, saturation, and brightness. These concepts are quite well explained if we suspend an inverted cone from Newton’s color wheel, which displays the red and violet ends of the visible spectrum in a circle.  hue circle and how to use color in a remodel projecthue cone



Hue is the actual color of an object. Most people use the two words interchangeably. The physical dimension of hue is wavelength. Hue changes as the wavelength changes. Hue is measured in angular degrees starting with red at 0 and moving to yellow at 60 and green at 120, etc. 


Saturation measures the physical dimension of spectral purity and tells us the amount of hue that we see in an object. It is measured in percent from the center of the cone (0%) to the surface (100%). 

At 0% saturation, there is no visible hue. But at 100% the hue is pure. 

In physical terms, saturation is related to the complexity of the light wave. If the wave is a simple sine wave, the hue appears saturated. The pure color generated by a single wavelength is called monochromatic color. 

Since saturation is the purity of the hue, the colors on the circumference of the cone (above) are fully saturated and in their purest form. As they move towards the center, they become desaturated. Desaturation means that the colors become pale or weak. This is not at all the same thing as becoming lighter or less bright.


Brightness is often referred to as “value.” It is another psychological dimension of color. The more intense the light, the brighter the object appears. Brightness is measured in percent from black (0%) to white (100%). At 0% brightness, both hue and saturation disappear. Thus brightness tells us how light or dark a color is based on how close it is to white. For example, yellow is lighter than blue which in turn is lighter than black. Therefore, the value of yellow is higher than blue and black.


Chromaticity refers to the hue and saturation of an object, independent of brightness. It represents the color that something actually is. The red of a red apple looks different in a dark kitchen than in a kitchen with the lights on. But it is still the same color red. 


A tint is formed when white is added to a hue, increasing lightness. Very light tints are sometimes called pastels, but any pure hue with white added to it is a tint. 


A shade is created when black is added to a hue, reducing lightness. The word is often incorrectly used to describe tint or tone. Shade only applies to hues made darker by the addition of black.


Tones are created when gray is added to a hue. Tones are generally duller or softer-looking than pure hues.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors

 The color theory holds that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These are the 3 pigment colors that cannot be made by mixing any combination of other colors. Thus all other colors are derived from these three hues.  

primary colors and how to use color in a remodel project

The 3 secondary colors (green, orange and purple) are created by mixing 2 primary colors.

secondary colors

 Another 6 tertiary colors are a combination of a secondary color and a primary color next to it. They include yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green and yellow-green.

tertiary colors

Color Families and Remodeling

Using color families is an essential tool in how to use color in a remodel project.

Color families are a useful division of the color wheel into warm, cool, and neutral colors. This follows Goethe’s concept. While it is certainly possible to create designs that pull colors from all three families, most designs are going to reflect an overall feeling of warmth, coolness or neutrality, which would be enhanced or reduced by light or dark.

Warm and Cool Colors

warm and cool colorsWarm colors are variations of yellows, reds, and oranges. They convey energy, passion, happiness, vitality, enthusiasm, and excitement.  They are the colors of sunsets and sunrises, fire and autumn leaves. They evoke positive feelings in most people.

Cool colors are blues, greens, and lilacs. They convey calm, tranquility, and serenity. They are the colors of nature and water.  Blue is the only primary color in the cool spectrum, which means that the other cool colors are made by combining blue with a warm color.  Green combines blue and yellow.  Purple combines blue and red.  Cool colors evoke feelings of relaxation, calm, steadiness, and reserve.

Neutral Colors

White, black, gray and brown are neutral colors. They are commonly combined with brighter accent colors. But they can also be used on their own in designs. Black and white designs are elegant and sophisticated but hard to create. 

The meanings and impressions of neutral colors are much more affected by the colors that surround them than are warm and cool colors. For this reason, neutral colors often serve as a backdrop or distinguishing detail in a design of warm or cool colors.

Light and Dark Colors

Light or dark translates into spacious or cozy. Light colors reflect light and make a room feel larger. Dark colors absorb light and make a room feel smaller.

Color Schemes and Remodeling

Using color schemes, which are based on an understanding of color families, is where the rubber meets the road in understanding how to use color in a remodel project.

It is key to the selection of the colors of our hard finishes and the placement of paint colors. 

The color wheel is a tool used to make colors look good in many applications. Human experience has identified color combinations that are particularly pleasing. This experience has been analyzed and systematized into color chords reflecting the harmonious relationship of two or more colors in the color wheel. 

Monochromatic Color Scheme 

monochromatic color schemeA monochromatic color scheme uses a single color in varying intensities of lightness and saturation. Here we have used black. Black, being the absence of light, is certainly not a color in the scientific sense. However, in the practical world it is, since one can get black paint. 

One may substitute any color on the color wheel to achieve a monochromatic scheme. The monochromatic color scheme is clean and elegant. It is easy on the eyes and has a soothing effect, especially with blue or green hues. While it lacks color contrast, the monochromatic scheme has visual appeal and balance.

Complementary Color Scheme

complementary color schemeColors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green, are said to be complementary colors. This scheme is intrinsically high contrast and vibrant and must be managed carefully to avoid a jarring effect. 

It is best to avoid having complementary colors in immediate juxtaposition and to separate them by using white space or a transitional color. 

Another approach is to use warm colors against cool colors, for example, orange against blue. Another approach is to have one of the colors as dominant or background and its complementary color for accents.

Analogous Color Scheme

analogous color schemeAnalogous color schemes are created by using 3 adjacent colors on the color wheel.  Normally one color is dominant with another in support and the third (perhaps combined with black, white or gray) as an accent. Contrast is important.  Analogous schemes convey comfort and serenity. 

Triadic Color Scheme

triadic color schemeA triadic color scheme uses 3 colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. It is bold but balanced, providing both drama and harmony. As with the analogous scheme, it is best to let one color dominate and to use the others for accent.

Split-Complementary Color Scheme

split complementary color schemeThe split-complementary color scheme is a variation of the complementary color scheme. It uses the 2 colors on either side of the complementary color. This provides the same bold contrast as the complementary scheme but with more nuance and less tension.

Tetradic Color Scheme

tetradic color schemeThe tetradic (double complementary or rectangular) scheme uses 4 colors arranged into two complementary color pairs. This scheme is difficult to bring into harmony and, as with the other multi-color schemes, one color should be allowed to dominate. Warm and cool colors should balance.

Square Color Scheme

square color schemeThe square color scheme is similar to the rectangle, but with all 4 colors spaced evenly around the color circle. The same care should be taken to let one color dominate and find a balance between warm and cool colors.

Summing Up: Color Selection and Remodeling

When you see and understand from the above the many ways in which colors and combinations of colors complement each other and contrast one with the other, you are well armed in making the color selections for your project. 

Pro Tip: have a good idea of the color choices you will make before you choose hard finishes like tile and countertop. But make your paint selection last.

color combinations for your remodel color and design in remodeling color and design in remodeling color and design in remodeling