There’s a reason why so many masterful paintings and well-designed rooms are composed of neutrals, accented by a few spots of intense, fully saturated color. It’s a central principle of art and interior design: Bright colors appear more vivid when surrounded by neutral colors. Neutrals provide a unifying function for rooms, enhancing the beauty of bright accent pieces by drawing the eye toward luminous spots of vivid color. People are instinctively drawn to this ordered color scheme, finding it more soothing than rooms where colors with equal intensity compete for their attention.
Tone on Tone
In this subtle, sophisticated approach, variations of one color are deployed throughout the room. Tone on tone is associated with severe, spartan styles. However, it can be enlivened by the placement of a few bright accessories in the same hue family. A room with pale green-gray walls and curtains, pewter frames with green-gray mats, and a dark green-gray sofa could be enlivened by bright mint green lamp shades or painted teal end tables.
Color wheel opposites, called complementary colors, don’t always give a room the drama of a Van Gogh painting. However, if the undertones of the room’s neutrals are complementary to its bright accents, a sense of drama can exist within a calming, unified framework. A bedroom with slate-gray walls and oak floors already has a neutral complimentary backdrop. By adding curtains and a comforter with a slate-gray and tan pattern, you reiterate that interplay. Add bright blue pillows and a vivid orange vase, and they will glow, being the brightest versions of the featured complimentary pair. The same concept can be applied to other complementary pairs, such as green-gray and red, or purple-gray and yellow.
Contrast can also be established through textured neutrals. Simple wall treatments, such as glazes, create subtle texture with a thin, translucent color glaze over an opaque white or cream underlayer. Since two contrasting layers of paint are visible, filtering light in different ways, a sense of depth is felt throughout the room. The eye travels a linked path from a distressed tan leather chair to an ornate gold frame on a smooth, tan wall. In the same way, it travels from the smooth expanse of dark cabinetry to a dark, speckled warm-gray granite countertop. Bright accessories can also feature textural contrast, such as red throw pillows in floral and smooth velvet fabrics.
Neutral color schemes also offer greater flexibility, allowing you to easily change accent colors, thereby updating your decor as styles change. Accent items are less labor-intensive and costly to change than walls, flooring, and larger furniture. When choosing neutrals, keep favored accent colors in mind, selecting neutrals that contrast well with loved brights. One method for selecting a neutral palette involves dividing neutrals into warm and cool camps. Cool neutrals, such as blue and green grays, contrast well with warm brights, such as reds and oranges. Warm neutrals, such as creams, browns, and taupes, contrast better with cool brights, including blues, purples, and cool greens.