Mackenzie is a professional writer and graphic designer. Merging concise messaging with topics in design, food, and lifestyle, she has written and designed online seminars, branding and social media content, as well as written how-to guides in a variety of fields.
Warm and cool colors are the basis for many important components of design, but the topic isn’t always so straightforward. For example, we may love to wear a certain color, but when we imagine painting our bedroom in it, we’re suddenly turned off. Or perhaps we fall in love with mustard yellow one season only to find out that by next year, we’re ready to move on.
Learning about color really takes us a long way in the journey toward creating a space we want to live in. First, we’ll define the basic differences between warm and cool colors, along with how each family of colors affects a room and the people who enter it. Then, we’ll outline several important sub-topics, including hue, saturation, and brightness and how they interplay in planning a room’s design. We’ll also provide a few useful tips and resources so that you can plan your next design project.
Warm colors are reds, oranges, yellows, and any combination of the three. In parallel, they create a feeling of “warmth” in a space, which is to say, coziness and intimacy. Warm colors also tend to make a space literally feel smaller, so if you have a large room and a modest budget that limits you from buying a lot of furniture or decorations, painting it a warm color will help you balance its spacious feel. That said, depending on the hue, saturation, and brightness of the color you choose, you can take warm colors like terra cotta accents from earthy to almost electric. Use this flexibility to your advantage by thinking what sort of specific emotion you’d like to evoke in your space. Perhaps you’d like a more amped-up color in your living room to stimulate conversation and energy, or you may prefer a subtler tone, meant to incite comfort and closeness.
The nuance of a color and its effects are due mainly to three factors: its hue, saturation, and brightness. The hue of a color refers to the influence of another color being mixed into the base one. For example, green can actually take on a warmer hue when a lot of yellow is added. This allows you to make potentially unconventional color combinations while still maintaining style and harmony in your space. Saturation is defined by the “purity” of a color and, as you go down in scale, the color will look increasingly gray. Use saturation to create depth and take risks with your palette that you normally wouldn’t, like positioning a bold red upholstered chair in front of a muted red wall. Brightness is most easily described as the amount of white mixed into a color and, as the name suggests, is important for how bright a space feels. So, if you’re working with an apartment with scant natural light but still want the warmth of yellow, go for a lighter shade that will better reflect the light and create balance.
Cool colors include blue, green, purple, and any blend of the three. As you’d imagine, cool colors generally have the opposite effect that warm ones do. They are calming, soothing, and refreshing. Cool colors also often create a sense of openness in a space, which helps expand the feel of a small room or apartment. It’s said that warm colors belong to the heart while cool colors belong to the head, so you may want to use a primarily cool palette for rooms like a home office or bath, where a sense of focus or relaxation predominate. Here, you can also incorporate hue, saturation, and brightness to play around with the precise mood you’d like to set. Perhaps you’d like to paint your bedroom a serene green, but you also plan on regularly lighting candles so you choose a hue with a hint of yellow in it. Or maybe you live in a hot climate and you’d like colors to be as icy and cooling as possible — all are valid ideas.
Here, the basic definitions of hue, saturation, and brightness remain the same as with warm colors but how you apply them may differ. For example, using a saturated cool color may actually cause your space to take on a warm appeal, since warm climates like the Caribbean are famed for their pure blue waters. You can also turn down the brightness of a cool color to transform a large, open space into a more sophisticated, sultry one. For example, if you want to (or have to) keep your walls beige, why not incorporate some dark, cool-colored throw blankets and rugs? It provides contrast without taking too much risk or effort.
When considering warm and cool colors, there are a few overarching principles to keep in mind. First, remember the general emotions that both color families evoke — coziness and comfort for warm colors and a sense of spacious ease for cool ones. Also, consider the various ways you can alter a color using hue, saturation, and brightness. Here, there aren’t any hard and fast rules but by knowing how these three factors influence a particular color, you can more easily adjust them to your liking. Also, don’t feel pressured to stick to one color family entirely. In fact, we recommend purposefully incorporating colors from both ends of the spectrum so that your space feels organic.
To this end, we love the Adobe Color tool, a free resource that allows you to pick precise colors from photos you like, create a number of palettes based on a single color, and even explore color trends in areas like travel, architecture, and graphic design. You can also use any of the apps out there that help you simulate what a room may look like with a particular paint color. They’re not perfect but they do give you a chance to play with your color scheme before committing.