Combine Bathroom Colors with Confidence

Some basic color theory, a color wheel and the 60-30-10 rule will have you combining bathroom colors like an interior design pro.
By: Douglas Trattner


As a residential interior designer, Michelle Pollack, president of The Lollipop Tree, an interior design firm in Charleston, S.C., makes her living by combining colors to achieve a desired mood or effect. By following the traditional rules of color theory, she can produce kitchens and bathrooms that jump with energy or soothe the senses. Color theory tells us what hues give us that warm and cozy feel and which ones foster a cool, peaceful serenity. "But before you can successfully apply color theory to interior design, you have to understand how it works," she says.

Color 101

Ever since Sir Isaac Newton split visible light with a prism into the colors of the rainbow, artists, designers and even psychologists have been transfixed by color theory. Defined as the relationship between the 12 colors of a traditional color wheel, color theory explains why some color combinations feel harmonious while others seem discordant.

The color wheel starts with three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Then it adds the secondary colors, orange, green and purple, which are made by blending the primary colors. Six tertiary colors follow; these are made by mixing together a primary and secondary color.

In his artwork, Doug Sanderson uses color to dramatic effect. As an art instructor at Kent State University, Doug uses color to teach the basics of color theory.

More important than the individual colors on the color wheel, he says, is the relationship between those colors when grouped with one another. Traditionally called color schemes or harmonies, these groupings of two or more colors have a dramatic effect on how we perceive those colors. "When you juxtapose one color onto or next to another color, it will affect how those colors register on the brain and, usually, they change radically," he says. "This phenomenon is known as simultaneous contrast of color."

To illustrate this effect, Doug points to how differently a red square appears when placed against a blue background, compared to the same red square against a white background. Anybody who has attempted to read red text printed on a blue background can attest to the fact that some color combinations work better (or worse) than others.

Complementary colors, such as red and green, are those colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. These combinations result in a high-contrast, high-energy color scheme. Similar in feel, a triadic scheme employs three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel. This too results in a bold, vibrant arrangement.

Analogous colors, on the other hand, are any three neighboring colors on the color wheel. Because they are more closely related to one another, the appearance of an analogous color scheme will be more harmonious than a complementary or triadic one.

For the most soothing and melodious arrangement, the monochromatic color scheme is impossible to beat. As the name implies, a monochromatic color palette employs different shades of the same color.

Sanderson's introductory art lessons can be transferred directly from the canvas to our kitchen and bathroom walls, furnishings and accessories to achieve a wide range of design effects.

Theory in practice

When coming up with a room's color palette, designer Michelle Pollack takes three important things into consideration: her clients' personal preferences, their lifestyle (how they intend to use the space) and the room's physical structure (lighting and architectural details). With this information, she can determine which colors and color scheme will best match her clients' objectives.

"There are just some color schemes that work better than others," Michelle says. "Like if I walk into a country farmhouse kitchen, I automatically think of a monochromatic or analogous color scheme of creamy pale yellows or deep rich reds." Conversely, a kitchen in a contemporary or modern house might be best served by bold, bright colors used in a complementary or triadic color scheme.

If her clients are looking to achieve a feeling of peace and tranquility, she immediately considers a monochromatic or analogous color palette. "Think about the color scheme of a Hawaiian island and how restful it makes you feel," she says. "The lush green hills, the blue ocean water and the pale blue sky — that is a classic analogous color scheme." Bathrooms and spa rooms are ideal places to take color cues from nature, she adds.

To introduce a little bit more spark into a contemporary design pattern, Michelle moves to a complementary or triadic color scheme. "With each step up from monochromatic to analogous to complementary to triadic, you add a little more energy and a little more interest."

She cautions against injecting too much of a bright color in any room. "It is extremely important to balance colors with a lot of energy, because what might seem fun and exciting can become exhausting over time," she warns. This is where the beauty of a complementary color scheme really shines. Because the colors are opposite each other on the color wheel, these color combinations always balance a warm hue with a cool hue.

Formula for success

As an interior designer who specializes in what she calls "integrative lifestyle design," DeAnna Radaj, ASID, uses feng shui and color to achieve harmony and balance in one's home environment.

Color is a powerful influence on our daily lives, explains the owner of Bante Design in Milwaukee, Wis. By understanding the psychology of color, which identifies the psychological effects individual colors have on our minds and bodies, we can design rooms that foster health, well-being and prosperity.

DeAnna divides rooms into active spaces and passive spaces. Kitchens fall into the active category, while bathrooms tend to fall into the passive group. Because warm colors like orange and red represent energy and tension, they are best suited for active rooms like the kitchen. Alternatively, cool colors like blues and greens have a soothing and calming affect, making them ideal for passive rooms like the bedroom and bathroom.

"The kitchen is considered a fire room and the bathroom is a water room," she says. But that doesn't mean she recommends painting every wall in your kitchen red or every square inch of your bathroom blue. As in life, balance is key. "Too much of one color can create a numbing, exhausting effect on you and your family," she notes.

She suggests following a color principal commonly referred to as the "60-30-10 rule." For example, 60 percent of a bathroom or kitchen, typically the walls, should be one color of a color scheme. The color of the cabinetry and/or furniture accounts for the 30-percent figure. And accents and accessories such as plants, artwork and linens make up the remaining 10 percent.

And taking a lesson straight from the feng shui playbook, DeAnna Radaj strongly advises against painting your kitchen a vivid orange. "In feng shui terms, orange increases one's appetite," she says. "So unless you want to get fat, stay away from orange."


DeAnna Radaj, ASID
Bante Design

Michelle Pollack, ASID
The Lollipop Tree

Doug Sanderson
Associate Professor of Art Kent State University

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