Choosing Colours – Part 1


I’ve just spent a week teaching a personal colour analysis course, and part of what the course involves is general colour theory, this colour theory is used in all sorts of industries, not just image consulting, so I thought I’d show you using interior decorating and art how you can use the same principles when selecting colours to wear (and also a little about how the colour system I’ve been working on for the past year is put together).

According to Albert Munsell, who was a painter and art teacher and inventor of the Munsell system of colour, colours do not have just one property, but instead is comprised of the value (lightness or darkness of the colour), chroma (intensity – brightness to dullness of the colour) and hue (the colour) and undertone (relative warmth and coolness of the colour).

Here we have a Monet that is light in value
Here we have a Monet that is light in value
Here we have a Monet that is mostly deep in value
Here we have a Monet that is mostly deep in value
Here is a mostly bright and clear (high intensity) picture
Here is a mostly bright and clear (high intensity) picture
This Monet is muted and has a low saturation of colour
This Monet is muted and has a low saturation of colour
This picture has a warm undertone
This picture has a warm undertone
This one has a cool undertone.
This one has a cool undertone.
Colour Value - Green

So green (or any colour) can be warm or cool, light or dark, bright or muted, all at the same time! So of course you can have a light cool green, or a light warm green, that light cool green could be brighter, or more muted, it could be really light or only medium light. It could be a very cool green or only a slightly cool green.

When we think about these different aspects of colour and colours that blend well together, we may look for overall light, cool and clear colours, or alternatively warm, deep and muted colours (as a couple of examples).

It would look very odd if Monet had put a bright colour or two into a muted painting, like it doesn’t work in interior design if we put colours that have no properties in common together.
For example, below is a Mario Buatta designed room, where all the colours have warmth and a softness. Even the artwork has these same qualities.

Mario Buatta
Mario Buatta - Pic from Archtectural Digest

Even if the style is not to your taste, the colour palette is very easy on the eye and harmonises.

Alternatively, when choosing colours if they do not have the same properties, it can look not quite right.

Doug Meyer designed room
Doug Meyer designed room

For instance in this Doug Meyer designed room, all the colours have a similar level of brightness, but the cooler blue wall colour jars with the warmer overall undertone of the rest of the design (especially with Marilyn picture).


Even in fabric, the colours need to work together harmoniously. This piece of fabric has a lovely flow between the colours, all of which have warmth and softness.

So when designing the colour palettes I use to give clients when they have their colours done, I look for colours that harmonise together so that their clothes will work together and they don’t have to be some sort of colour expert at mixing and matching colours.

See part 2, putting it together in dress.

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  • Ooooooh, I love love love this post. I'm currently reading Janice Lindsay's incredible book, "All about Colour." Between that, the blog Colour me Happy and your blog, I'm learning a lot! And that makes me happy : )

  • I totally agree with S. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! It's easy to understand. And it's a great start to appreciating colours & harmony in colours.

  • This is incredibly useful. It explains why some things clash and I can easily see that muted green is the only one I'd go near. I want to learn to re-fashion clothes, not an easy thing to do well. From this I can see some of the principles I'll need to keep in mind if I try combining two pieces of clothing into one. Great post – thanks so much!

  • Brilliant, Imogen! This is so interesting – can't wait for the rest of the series! I have blonde hair and dark brown eyes and I think I look best in cool, clear colours. I can't wear pale colours near my face unless I have some darker colours for contrast. I love black, too! So for me I think that means my *worst* look would be warm, muted, soft colours, like pumpkin! LOL!

  • I love color theory in regards to what works for clothing, but I don't think the same applies for home decorating. The first picture with all the harmonizing colors looks boring to me. If I was in that room I would be depressed. On the other hand the room with the blue walls and the orange accents, is exciting! I don't find it jarring, its energizing and daring. Complimentary combinations such as blue and orange are fabulous in home decor..I am not so sure if that works for personal colors.

  • Great post! Colour is an amazing and infinite subject, so "underdevelopped". Wise harmonies bring so much pleasure! Cannot wait the next post.I have a question. I have been trying do do my colours myself following your posts on the subject. Are there kee simple tests, like if I find my bes(s) green between all these greens you show us in this post can we make a conclusion from that? Thanks a lot

  • Such a FANTASTIC! color explanation. So clear and concise. I love when I start the morning learning something useful.

  • OMG, I am so glad I found you. I thoroughly enjoyed your video on your website. I am completely and uterly a failure as far as understanding color. Will have to read every single one of your posts to educate myself. 🙂

  • I'm thinking there's "colour intelligence". Some people know the science but cannot make a room (or outfit) sing. Janice Lindsay (among others) is incredible! And i have noticed that some artists have an eye for colour that transfers to their attire. Others certainly do not!

  • Miss M – you may find that you dislike the first pic (it's not my decorating taste) because there isn't a pop factor, but why not check out Janice Lindsay (as recommended by Duchesse) who does fabulous colour palettes with lots of pop, but they are still harmonious

    Yes orange and blue are great together as they are complimentary, but even then sometimes it's the shade of orange and blue chosen that makes it work better or not as well.

  • Duchesse – so right – some people have a gift! But many can improve, even if they can't quite get to operatic level, they may hum in tune rather than be discordant.

    Thanks for the Janice Lindsay tip – she does some beautiful work.

  • I agree with Miss M! I love the Doug Meyer room for the complementary scheme and the contrasts! And I love to see a pop of a bright color, say a fuschia belt, round a muted taupe dress. I like the offbeat color stories, they stimulate me. Who cares about harmony all the time! Just sayin'…

  • I can't hardly wait for the next post. 15 years ago, a fashion designer friend of mine said that fashion is all about colors. I didn't believe him then, but I'm starting to think that he could be right. I always have nothing to wear despite the piling clothes in my wardrobe because the colors of the pieces don't go together.

  • Karen – a bright belt on a neutral is not the same kind of pop of colour I was referring to as compared to the mixing of colours (rather than colours with neutrals, which is a whole different story).

  • I was once the queen of neutrals just because I am a disaster at knowing my colors. Now I am just a queen of disaster, color or no. This post has my interest piqued. Could I finally, finally learn that I am able to wear any shade of red? Looking forward to your next post on the subject!

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