The Designer's Lesson
You know the formula by heart: warm colors advance and cool colors recede.
The advice that usually follows this statement is to paint the walls a cool color if you want a room to seem larger; if you want it to feel smaller, bathe the walls with a warm hue. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.
A bold green or blue can pull in the walls around you just as effectively as the warmest red, while a soft yellow can make the walls seem to dissolve, enhancing the sense of space. It's a matter of value -- lightness or darkness -- and intensity (how saturated or pure a color is) as much as temperature.
Mood Changes and More: In general, lighter, paler, or less intense colors will enlarge the apparent space; darker or more intense colors will shrink it. The impact of color on space is also a question of mood. Color affects your mood, which in turn affects your perception of a space and your comfort level in it.
Remember, too, that neighboring colors affect each other. If you juxtapose two colors, the eye will perceive them to be as different from each other as possible.
Complements -- colors that lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel -- intensify each other. If you use red and green in a room together, the red will seem more red and the green will appear more green.
Every scheme needs a dollop of contrast to intrigue the eye and to feel balanced and lively. When you work with complements, you automatically have that contrast. An analogous scheme of warm or cool colors will require the addition of an element of the opposite temperature to give the scheme punch.
Light and Dark
Value refers to how light or dark a color is; among all colors, yellow is the lightest value, and purple is the darkest.
When you want to alter the sense of space in a room, use low-value (dark) colors to draw the walls in around you. Use high-value (light) colors to push them away and make a room appear a bit larger.
Every color can range from light to dark, so you can use your favorite hue to shrink a room or expand it by choosing the appropriate value.
Focal Points Pop
High contrast between a room's walls and its architectural features outlines the room's boundaries and calls attention to its shape and size. If the room is generous, you'll notice the size more; if it's diminutive, you'll be more aware of that too.
Furnishings that stand out sharply against the wall color also help define the space more precisely. Ocean blue walls contrast briskly with white woodwork and upholstery, sharpening awareness of the dimensions and limits of the space.
A bold golden yellow, on the other hand, blends with gold-color accessories, painted furniture, and white woodwork and upholstery, enlarging the sense of space even though the color is deep and warm.
If you're faced with a boxy room that feels boring, try a multicolor palette to change the proportions. How do you choose a palette for this kind of illusionism? As a general rule, plan on either a warm or an intense color for the wall you wish to bring forward and either a cool or a subdued color for the walls you wish to push apart.
In a long, narrow hall, for example, painting the end wall coral and the corridor walls sage can visually shorten the corridor because the coral will advance visually. Conversely, a short hall will seem longer if you paint the end wall a lighter color and the corridor walls a darker one.
For a starting point in choosing specific colors, consider your givens. If a piece of furniture (such as a red sofa) is a focal point, then choosing its complement (green) for the nearest wall will intensify both colors and draw the eye toward that part of the room.
For the remaining walls, select a light value of a color that appears in other furnishings or in an architectural feature. For the ceiling, decide whether you want to lower or raise it and choose your color accordingly.
No matter how effectively you select colors for this kind of space-altering approach, using different hues on each wall and the ceiling breaks up the space and may easily create visual chaos.
Decorating with planes of color -- changing hues wherever one plane meets another -- is an option best suited to those who enjoy the stimulation of lots of color in their environment.
Alter the Sense of Space
Lofts and new homes with open plans and cathedral ceilings offer similar architectural challenges for homeowners. If your living room, kitchen, and office all share one large, undivided space, can you use more than one color? And if so, where do you stop one color and start the next?
In traditional homes, cased openings, columns, and pilasters provide natural boundaries for starting and stopping colors. To develop a palette, pull out colors from your home's furnishings that will blend rather than match exactly. Start with a rug or fabric that offers three or four compatible colors. Include both warm and cool hues and keep them in the same tonal range.
To map out where you'll apply each color, think about creating a sense of movement through successive spaces by arranging the colors from warm to cool or vice versa.
Also consider the light that each space receives. Natural light changes the appearance of any color. To gauge the impact of light on your chosen colors, buy a quart of each color and brush the paint onto large pieces of poster board. Tape the poster board to the walls to observe how the colors change throughout the day and by lamplight.