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Using Colour Schemes – A How to Guide

Choosing a Colour

Choosing a colour (also called a hue) is where it all starts. From this simple choice you can get a lot of guidance when making decisions on your design journey. Your most trusted ally without a doubt is the colour wheel. This nifty little tool helps you figure out what colours work together. On it we have the primary colours, the secondary colours that are made from mixing two primary (for example orange made from red and yellow) and then the tertiary colours made up from mixing a primary and secondary colour (red-orange, blue-green etc). These colours don’t just add beauty to a room, they can affect our feelings too, they can make us feel happy, energised, relaxed, refreshed and inspired. Now although there are a lot of colours here, they can be broken down into two groups based on colour temperature and the atmosphere they create.

Warm Colours

Reds, yellows and oranges give us a sense of energy, life and vibrancy. They are also excellent for recreating a sense of intimacy, perfect for a cosy room. 

Cool Colours

Blues, greens and purples. Perfect for producing a calming, relaxing atmosphere. Brillant for chill out spaces or cool clear refreshment. 

Now when picking a colour, we also want to think about the spaces we are working with. Cool colours in a large room can create an overly cold and stark feel while using warm colours in smaller spaces can make it feel cramped and tight. Luckily these drawbacks can be balanced out by using other colours bringing us to colour schemes.

Making Tones, Tints and Shades

Once we have our base colour picked out from the colour wheel, we can mix things up using neutrals. Neutrals have low saturation (think of it is colour intensity) and can be added to soften a colour and bring an air of elegance and sophistication. The neutrals are white, beige, brown, grey and black.  We can mix these with your base colour to make:

A Tint – adding white to brighten your colour

A Shade – adding black to darken your colour

A Tone – adding grey to slightly darkens your colour

Mixing in these to our base colour will give endless variations to play with!

Creating Balance: The 60-30-10 Rule

Now just before we get to the juicy bit – putting together our own colour schemes – there is one timeless design rule that is really going to help us when it comes to applying our colour schemes to a room.

It has the catchy name the 60-30-10 rule, what is this you ask? No there is no need to get out our calculators, it’s just a handy way to divvy up colour coverage and helps stop your room becoming too busy and overwhelming. Using this rule we have:

60% is going to be our main colour. We would be looking to apply this colour to walls, large pieces of furniture, large rugs etc.

30% will be our secondary colour. This supports your main colour and helps bring harmony to the space but is also different enough to make things interesting. We would be looking at throws, smaller pieces of furniture such as chairs and occasional tables, and feature walls.

10% of the colour in the room will be our accent colour. It’s this colour that you can really play around with and it can define a room. We could go subtle and keep things elegant and chilled or we could go vibrant and energetic to really make things pop. We’d be looking at artwork, vases, cushions and pillows, the little feature pieces.

Now this isn’t a hard and fast rule, you’re not going to be stormed by the fashion police if you bend things a little, but it sure does make our lives a lot easier; especially when you are in our GLAL showroom surround by beautiful things!

Using Colour Schemes

Right, now we come to the part we’ve been waiting for, putting together a colour scheme for our room!

We have selected a colour, and we know how to balance it, but which colours do we team it up with? Luckily there are already worked out pairings for us and all we need is our trusty colour wheel.


Here, rather than work in another colour, we stick our single colour and the variety comes from using variations of the base colour. We use tints, shades and tones to create interest but also keeping things easy because there is no danger of colour clashes.  

Using the 60-30-10 rule we could use a soothing tone for the main colour, a shade for the secondary to add some depth and then a tint or vibrant pure colour for the accent. We could also quite easily add another dimension to our space by bringing in some neutrals too. With this scheme we don’t have to worry about colour clashes, we just have to be mindful to bring in enough contrast to keep things interesting. 


With this colour scheme, we pick two to three colours that sit next to each other on our colour wheel. Like all of the colour schemes, we can tweak the colours by using tones, tints and shades of our selected colours. This colour scheme is commonly found in nature and excellent for creating harmony, it’s in the name after all. However, like with monochrome, we have to make sure we create enough of a contrast to break things up, or we could use bright vibrant colours to ensure plenty of energy. If we are going to use three colours it’s best to use the middle colour of the three on the colour wheel as our main colour because it will be made up from the other two and will bring coherence to the space. 


complementary colour scheme eg

Here opposites really do attract. Looking at our colour on the wheel we hop across to the colour opposite. Using this colour will create a really high contrast and really make features stand out. When using these colours neutrals are our friend here, we’d be looking to use one of our colours as the main one and then a neutral for your second to provide a rest from the contrast, with the accent in the complementary colour to make things pop out. 

Split Complementary

split Complementary Colour Scheme

If high contrast is not your cup of tea but you still want things colourful, we could go for a split complementary. Rather than opting for the opposite colour, we go for the two colours each side of the opposite. Sound confusing? I don’t blame you, have a look at the handy graphic to clear things up. (colour wheel demonstrating) With this palette we could use our original colour as the main, then the other two as the secondary and the accent. This scheme is perfect for bold balanced looks. Because of the reduced contrast, we don’t have to use neutrals to reduce the tension and can use a lot more colour in our space.


We get this colour scheme by taking our chosen colour and selecting two other colours, each colour having three spaces between the other on the colour wheel. As we can see this makes a triangle on the wheel. This scheme will give us a very vibrant palette that lends itself well to playful, energetic spaces. However, this could be given a more sophisticated, subdued look by using tints and tones to soften the palette. Applying the 60-30-10 rule is rather straightforward here, we would be choosing one colour for the main, one for the secondary and then the third for the accent.

Double Complementary

Double Complementary Colour Scheme

Here things get a little tricky. This is the same as the complementary scheme however we have two sets of complementary colours to work with than just the two. We would definitely be mixing things up with tints and tones to avoid an overload of colours, we can also keep things calmer by giving one colour dominance in our space. Whichever combination we choose there will be two warm colours and two cold colours, and then we can choose which to use as the main and secondary colours to create either a cooler or warmer space. Because we have four colours here we will be bending the 60-30-10 rule. This scheme works best if we use our main and secondary colours at their usual 60 and 30, then we would use the other two colours as accents at 10 each giving us 110%. Because this is a lot of contrast and variety this is better suited to larger rooms to give the colours plenty of space to play out. 

Parting Remarks 

There we have it, a whistle stop tour of colour theory and how to apply it to our own design projects. Don’t worry if you haven’t be able to memorise everything we have been through, we have covered a lot. And what is more, you can always revisit this guide to whenever you need to! But one thing to definitely remember: none of these are rules you must follow, think of them as pointers or guides to help you on projects, you can tweak and change anything you want. After all, it’s your project so have fun!