How to decorate with colour

The mood you create in any room is most affected by the depth of colour and how that colour is used. Here Joa Studholme of Farrow & Ball explores how to create different schemes within five colour families

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The colour wheel is a tool that is so familiar to us all. However, although it is extremely useful to understand the basic structure of colour, it is not always the decorator’s best friend.

The wheel that we are most used to seeing today has 12 sections and includes tertiary colours, which are combinations of primary and secondary colours: yellow-green, red-orange and so on. This wheel can certainly help you to understand how colours relate to each other – those that work together and those that don’t.

Colours that sit side by side are known as analogous, and are broadly harmonious when used together, resulting in natural-looking, tranquil spaces. You might think it would be easy to work with a scheme of harmonious colours, but careful consideration is required to avoid creating a room totally lacking in vitality when the contrasts are so subtle.

farrow and ball red colour blazer

Pink is often banished to the bedroom, but here you see its seductive qualities being used with great sensitivity

5 tips on decorating with colour

  1. Dirt on surfaces can cause poor adhesion, so begin by washing walls and surfaces with a light detergent, remove any loose paint, and fill holes or cracks with filler, before sanding down to ensure a flush finish. If painting glossy surfaces, use fine sandpaper. Then wipe everything with a clean cloth and ensure surfaces are dry before painting.
  2. If the walls are in sound condition and already painted, there is no need to use a primer. If you are painting over new plaster, the surface has greasy stains, or is generally not of sound condition, a primer is recommended.
  3. A base coat will be required if opting for a significant colour change. In many cases, two coats of the colour will suffice, but for a deeper, richer finish, apply a third coat.
  4. Cover any light fixtures or switches with decorator’s tape, and paint the room from top to bottom, so that accidental drips will fall on areas not yet painted – start with two coats on the ceiling, then the walls, window frames, skirting boards and doors.
  5. Use a small-sized brush to cut in around the ceiling edge, windows, doors and skirting by around three to five inches. Then, using a nine-inch roller, paint from an unpainted area into the wet cut-in area, and repeat down the wall. For an even finish, paint a ‘W’ shape with the roller, then fill it in with an up-and-down movement before adding more paint to it. Be careful not to overload the roller or press on it too hard.

- Helen Shaw

Complementary colours are any two that sit directly opposite each other on the wheel, such as red and green. Using these creates schemes with maximum contrast, resulting in dynamic and exciting rooms with a more primal intensity. A colour scheme of complementary opposites also needs to be carefully considered to achieve a pleasing balance. When strong colours are included among them, it is often best to offset them with neutrals.

Your starting point may well be deciding whether you prefer a harmonious or a complementary scheme, and in this case the rules of the wheel can certainly be an aid in your colour selection. However, use it with caution: the infinite combinations and the relationship between colours are oversimplified in the wheel, and there is so much more to creating a successful decorative scheme.

Consider the light

Natural lighting will have a significant effect on how a colour will look in a room, and your shade could end up looking vastly different to how it appeared in the shop. For this reason, it is best to view your paint outdoors and always take home a tester pot to view it in your planned room.

It is not just the amount of light you need to think about, but also the direction of natural light. For example, northern light has a cooling effect on most colours, so if your room is north facing, cream and neutral shades are better than pure white to avoid a cold, clinical look. Again, any mid-darker hues will help to warm an otherwise cool room.


Adored around the world, from the Victorian era to the present day, red is always warm and welcoming. It is also the most powerful of colours. Painting a room in red is not, however, for the faint-hearted.

Farrow and ball red colour palette

Strong reds are very well suited to dining rooms because they add drama and weight – they have a robust intensity and produce stimulating, powerful rooms that grab your attention. In contrast, a less vivid red will create a more restful atmosphere, as the effect of the colour strengthens over a larger area. More muted tones, such as Farrow & Ball’s Red Earth, create warm rooms that are less challenging but still give a rich background, immediately evoking classical antiquity.

While red is sensual, pink has a gentler feel and its effect is more soothing. Although it is often viewed exclusively as a colour for girls, the great 20th-century colourist John Fowler used pinks like Setting Plaster or Pink Ground extensively, creating spaces that were soft but still full of impact.

farrow and balls cinder rose colour pink paint

Dusty Cinder Rose on the walls is combined with Black Blue on the door, which makes for a visually satisfying contrast


Yellow has been enduringly popular since the 18th century, but it was only in the 20th century, when the influential interior designer Nancy Lancaster used the colour extensively, that it really entered the mainstream. It is still a mainstay of decoration in everywhere from rustic farmhouses to contemporary apartments, never failing to create a hopeful and optimistic atmosphere in a room.

farrow and ball indian summer colour yellow paint

Although yellow can sometimes appear raw in bright light, these India Yellow walls come into their own after dark. This home feels uplifting during the day and then glows at night

Yellow enhances large spaces beautifully and also creates glorious rooms that are full of energy, whether with muted sophisticated tones, such as Hay, or the more vibrant, clean yellows. Rich yellows like these can be perceived as sunshine, particularly in hallways, so they are always welcoming and often have the added bonus of making areas appear larger. Since these yellows are so stimulating, bringing rooms to life, it means they are less appropriate for the bedroom, where a soothing tone is more suitable.

Strong yellows are often best combined with a significant proportion of white to stop them being overwhelming.


Green, so often associated with health and good luck, is lush and uplifting. It represents the colour of nature. If you have a taste for the comfortable style of the English country house, tranquil and muted greens create rooms that are flexible and restful, as well as being the perfect backdrop to shabby-chic furniture and well-loved fabrics. They are best used with a traditional white, such as Off-White, to soften the contrast between walls and woodwork.

Farrow and Ball Breakfast room colour green paint

This rural kitchen is the natural home for mid-tone Breakfast Room Green, which also perfectly complements the cream-coloured vintage range

For a more upbeat room, you need to opt for a more vital green, like Cooking Apple. These colours often feature in kitchens because their refreshing, outdoorsy feel gives a room breathing space and creates a happy atmosphere.

farrow and ball green colour palette

In one of the earliest recorded references to painted decoration, Henry III ordered that the panelling in his principal residence at Windsor be painted green. Whether this was to promote a feeling of health and vigour or to reflect the balanced feeling of nature is unknown, but to this day green rooms retain an essence of life that is unmatched by any other colour.

refreshing bright green colour bathroom paint

The refreshing Churlish Green panelling in this bathroom creates a statement and also makes the room feel bigger by distracting you from the physical confines of the space


When it comes to decorating, blue tends to divide opinion more than any other colour. For some it immediately conjures up cold, unfriendly spaces, while for others it evokes calm and serenity.

The price of blue pigment once exceeded that of gold, but now the colour is more widely used in decoration than any other. It reflects the soothing tones of both the sea and the sky, creating rooms with a timeless appeal. Aqua blues, with their underlying green, produce pretty spaces that could never be seen as cold, making them perfect colours for bedrooms and bathrooms. When combined with clean white, they create the freshest of rooms, reminiscent of the colours of Wedgwood china.

Farrow and Ball Parma grey colour paint

The uncomplicated nature of this living room, painted in clean blue Parma Grey, makes it so appealing. Bright white on the lamp base and bookcase means you perceive more colour on the walls – an example of how sometimes less is more

The most relaxed and easy-to-use blues are those that lean towards grey. These shades work together seamlessly in any combination. The darker, more sophisticated blues, which create a really dramatic, glamorous feel, have increased in popularity as an alternative to charcoal grey.

Blue is often thought of as a regal colour, but it should also be viewed as calm and spiritual when used in the home.


Over the past decade it seems that many designers have crossed over to the dark side for their paint colours. People are less concerned about space and more concerned with mood, with the result that deep, saturated colours abound.

Although such shades are possibly not the first you would gravitate to, they can be an inspired solution in dark spaces, blurring boundaries so you can’t read the perimeters of the room.

Farrow and Ball Vaudevilll charcole blue colour paint

Being neither black nor blue, rich Railings is the perfect complement to this industrial dresser. When using any dark colours on the wall, it is popular to paint the woodwork

However, even in larger, open spaces, dark tones can flatter a room’s proportions; a very large-scale room may command a strong colour, such as Tanner’s Brown. Rooms painted in such seemingly simple colours evoke a complex response. They are undeniably moody, but have an unexpected hint of modernity about them, especially when only one colour is used on all the elements in the room.

Deep, rich shades, such as Pelt, serve as the perfect background for home furnishings, and their warm undertone gives them a softness, making them soothing and romantic in bedrooms.

From the muted grey tone of Down Pipe to the complex black-blue of Railings, darks are respectful of traditional proportions but can also create modern and dynamic spaces in the contemporary home.

This is an edited extract from Farrow & Ball: How to Decorate by Joa Studholme and Charlotte Cosby, published by Mitchell Beazley, £30 from Octopus Books.