Colour Psychology: the Biggest misconception about cool and warm colours

| Riccardo Del Bello | Interior Design Tips

When thinking about colours, not only for interiors but also to what they communicate to us in our daily life, there are some basic assumptions (that I’d straight call misconceptions) about their meaning and effects that should be rectified.

The most common happens when we divide them into cool and warm tones. In particular, when people tell me “I don’t want to use blue! I want the room to look welcoming. I want to use warm colours”. So, if I said that red and yellow are warm colours, while blue and green are cool (almost) everyone would agree, right?

The reality is not so simple though. So, let’s take a step back and erase the ‘blue-cool-red-warm’ preconception.

How do I pick the right cool or warm colour for my interior?

Keeping in mind what has just been said is a good starting point, but now we still have to solve the problem of how to define which colours are warm and which are cool and when to use them.

The truth is that there are many factors affecting decisions, which is especially true when it comes to interior design. The first has to be the mood and feeling that we want to obtain from this interior. This is not necessarily connected to the warm-cool colour dichotomy. Actually, some conclusions might surprise you.

Let’s have a look at the graphic here. Which group of colours would you say includes cool tones?

warm vs cool colours

If you guessed the second one, then congratulations, you’re right. Someone not attentive would have probably pointed out at the first one. But why is that? How can red be cool and blue warm?

First of all, let’s consider the virtually infinite variety of shades one can obtain by simply mixing two colours in different percentages. The picture below should help in realise this. The simple answer here is, a blue can be warm if I add yellow or red to it, and a red can be cool if blue is added to it.

colour wheel

Now that we’ve assessed that there are cool reds and warm blues, it is important to say that a cool red is yet still warmer than a warm blue. But this doesn’t mean that using a blue in a room will automatically make it feel cold. There are a lot of factors involved.

Two other important factors when choosing the right colour for an interior are in fact, the room's actual size and how busy it is with furniture and accessories. Warm colours, in fact, tend to make a space look smaller. So, if a room is cluttered warm tones might become overwhelming, while cool ones might convey a sense of relaxation and make your interior look more spacious. This is the reason why cool colours are also called ‘expansive’.

A fun fact about blue and its being expansive is that it is connected to the colour of the sky. So, in our subconscious, it is intrinsically linked to concepts of space and infinite. It also induces a feeling of calm and relaxation, and for this reason, is considered the quintessential cool colour.

blue cool

As it is so inherently connected to the sky above us, blue also provides a view of vast distances, allowing us to look beyond the obvious increasing our perspective, and opening the flow of communication.

The fourth aspect to consider in the colour choice is the amount and nature of light it receives. Both natural and artificial light can alter the colour. Let me illustrate this with a brief anecdote:

When designing a room, a person came back to me with doubts about walls colour. The room had a window on the wall facing north. So, because it only received indirect, and thus cool sunlight, he preferred to use a warm colour for its walls. While this is not wrong, once again, it’s not all there is to it. Even more important than the light temperature is the perceived brightness of the room. This is more affected by the lightness of the colour than its warmth. So, instead of just thinking in terms of cool or warm, it is important to also consider light and dark tones. Light colours reflect more light while dark ones absorb it. This means that in a room facing North if you want it to feel bright, you should choose light tones over dark ones, regardless of whether they are cool or warm.

clay green space

One final thing to consider is that colours can influence each other and alter their perception in an interior. What I mean is that if you have a feature wall painted in a cool tint while all other walls are white, the room will feel cold. But if the same room has a lot of other warm accents within it, those will warm the space up. The same cool colour in the feature wall will be perceived as warmer because of its closeness with the warm ones.

No room should have just warm or cool colours, the real challenge is learning how to mix them to obtain the desired effect.

Some concluding thoughts

The key is creating balance. Despite red and yellows being more obviously warm than blue and green, blue isn’t always cool, and red isn’t always warm, and none of them is always right in certain situations.

blue pink

Colours are not just how we see them in the colour wheel shown before. Within an interior, a room with cool walls, if complemented with the right amount of warm accents can be perceived as a warm environment while also looking more relaxing and spacious.

There is no good or bad, right or wrong colour. There’s only the right colour for a specific space and a specific user, in the specific proportion that perfectly complements its surroundings.

Riccardo Del Bello

Written by: Riccardo Del Bello

Riccardo is the marketing manager and partner of A Designer at Heart. He is in charge of the development and brand definition of the company for its marketing activities.


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