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The Science of Color

How to use the color wheel to decorate a room.

In the beginning, Newton discovered that color is light. All of the colors of the spectrum are within sunlight. Every time we see a color, we are seeing colored light. An item may appear to have a colored pigmentation, but what is really happening is that particular pigment has the ability to absorb many colored wavelengths of light.

That's the kind of stuff that really gets me excited, but of course, my partner Matt Fox would be in the middle of a huge, uncontrollable yawn. Believe me, this does get better.

The arrangement of colors is quite scientific, and the precise order of violet, blue, indigo, green, yellow, orange, and red turns up again and again in nature. Ever-present in a rainbow, beautiful in the spray of a waterfall, or reflected on the walls as the sun shines through a crystal chandelier, is the spectrum. For a designer's or artist's purposes, the spectrum has been bent to create a continuous circle of color that holds inherent color relationships used in all creative and colorful fields of interest including design, physics and psychology.

The basic "map" for color theory is known as the color wheel (at right). Although our world is filled with nearly 10 million discernible hues, the color wheel displays only 12, each representing approximately 1 million colors in that particular family. The most important colors are primary colors, and there are three: red, yellow and blue. These three are special because they are pure. No other colors can be mixed together to create any of the three. They are spaced equidistant from one another on the color wheel, and when mixed together, in varying amounts, they create the remaining nine colors.
The second group of colors on the color wheel, those that are equal parts of two of the primaries are called secondary colors. A mixture of half-red and half-yellow gives us orange and is located right between red and yellow on the color wheel, for example.

The remaining six colors that complete the color wheel are tertiary colors. They are the mixture of one primary and one of its next-door neighbors, a secondary color. For instance, between red and orange, is red-orange. And between orange and yellow is yellow-orange. Notice how the primary colors exert their power and use their name first in every tertiary combination?

Now, on to warm versus cool colors. Red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow and yellow-green are considered the warm half of the color wheel. When used in a design scheme, they add the equivalent of a little sunshine. Since our minds do react to color, warmer colors used in a room will help you to feel warmer, be more interested in conversation and lively activity. Warm colors tend to cozy up a room. Warm hues expand and come towards you, sometimes giving the appearance of a little smaller space.

The rest of the hues are considered the cool colors. They give the feeling of water and sky. They tone down a too-sunny room, and are more relaxing, often used in bedrooms and studies to promote quiet. Cool colors tend to recede, or move away from you, potentially expanding the appearance of a room.

If you have a room that is too bright, decorate it in colors from the cool side of the spectrum. If your room is aching for some life, cheer it up with a sunny, warm hue. This is just the start of color theory and color science.

(Shari Hiller writes this column with Matt Fox. They also co-host the Home & Garden Television show Room by Room. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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