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Warm and Cool Colors

Updated: 2019-10-15

One of the first choices in decorating is to decide whether you prefer warm vs cool colors. There is no right or wrong, because the debate over warm vs. cool colors comes down to a matter of preference. If you are working on a project, some information on warm colors and cool colors and how to use them can help you narrow down the decision. 

This article discusses warm and cool colors, the characteristics of warm colors and cool colors individually, and how to mix them for your next project. The topics that will be discussed include:

  • Overview: description of warm and cool colors; warm colors and cool colors on the color wheel.
  • Warm colors: in-depth description of warm colors, brown as a warm color, warm-neutral colors; inviting warm colors for your project.
  • Cool colors: in-depth description of cool colors; cool colors on the color wheel; why cool colors seem to recede; cool colors for your project.
  • Warm vs. cool colors: cool neutral colors, warm-cool colors; mixing warm and cool colors. 

Warm colors and cool colors

In color theory, the discussion of warm and cool colors has been an important one since the 1700s. Warm colors range from yellow to red, often including browns. Cool colors range from blue-violet to blue-green, often with some grays included. In art and design, warm colors appear to be more active, while cool colors seem to recede. 

Warm and Cool Colors:

  • Warm colors: Warm colors are or derived from the primary colors red, orange, and yellow; evokes a warm feeling reminiscent of fire-like elements like the sun. 
  • Cool colors: Cool colors are or derived from the primary colors violet, blue, and green; evoke a cool feeling reminiscent of earth elements like water or greenery. 

Cool and warm color temperature

Measured in kelvins, color temperature is a light characteristic important to science as well as design. Cool colors have are blue(ish) and have a higher color temperature of over 5000 k. Warm colors are yellow(ish) and have color temperatures bellow 3000 k

Warm and cool colors on the color wheel

Since it does not make sense to explain green or purple in terms of color temperature, we use a color wheel to describe all colors on the spectrum.  The color wheel can be divided into two halves.  As you can see in the figure on the right, this color wheel has 12 colors, with warm colors on the right and cool colors on the left. Below the color wheel, the colors are broken down into parts. 

Warm colors

This section gives an overview of warm colors, discussing the following:

  • What are warm colors?
  • Warm colors on the color wheel
  • A warm color wheel
  • Is brown a warm color?
  • Warm neutral colors
  • Warm colored rooms
  • Warm and inviting colors (7 examples)

What are warm colors?

Warm colors are colors that have characteristics such as vivid, bright, bold, and sometimes overwhelming. Warm colors have a lower color temperature that ranges from 2700 kelvin to 3000 kelvin. Warm colors recall fire, the sun and heat and generally have red or yellow undertones. 

Warm colors on the color wheel

The main warm colors on the color wheel are red, orange and yellow. Colors that are solely made up of a mixture of these colors are, without any dispute, warm colors. Other colors, like a magenta with a blue bias, look like a warm color but are actually a cool color.

A warm color wheel

If we were to make a purely warm color wheel, its primary colors would contain red, orange and yellow, with numerous mixtures of those three colors. Ultimately, as the color wheel drifts over farther into the deep red part of the spectrum, it will start to drift into cool (blue) color territory. 

Is brown a warm color?

Because it is made of wood, the most common color in furniture is brown. While brown is considered to be neutral on its own, is is often grouped with warm colors because it complements them well; also"warm browns" can have a warm color bias when brown is mixed with a warm base. Common "warm browns" are browns that are used concurrently with autumn red, orange, and yellows. 

Warm neutral colors

While brown is considered a neutral color, it often seems more warm than neutral when mixed with warm colors. This is not the case for grey or green. When warm colors are lightly added to grey, and sometimes grey with a green tint, you get what many consider to be "warm neutral colors". Warm neutral colors are colors that feel more neutral than warm, but still have more of a warm bias than a cool one. 

Warm colored rooms

Warm colors are the king of cozy. Below are some warm home colors that, if used in the right circumstances, can add a warm and inviting flair to your project. 

 Warm and inviting colors

  • Red: Just a hint more warm-biased than magenta, a deep, rich red can bring warmth to a seasonal project (or any for that matter).
  • Peach: Sometimes combining all of the warm color spectra, peach can be tasteful and inviting. 
  • Pink: If used tastefully in its more subdued form, Pink can be a bold statement that can be vigorous and inviting at the same time. 
  • Tangerine: Tangerine in its purest form has more of a pumpkin tint than pure orange. This color can be great for autumn.  
  • Gold: Darker than the standard yellow, gold or even mustard yellow feels warm and inviting without being overly exuberant. 
  • Brown: As discussed above, brown is a neutral color that complements warm colors well, especially if mixed with a deeper warm color. 
  • White: While white is the quintessential neutral color, a creamy, warm white can be among the coziest of warm colors in the right circumstances. 
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Cool colors

This section discusses cool colors, namely these topics:

  • What are cool colors?
  • Cool color wheel
  • Cool colors recede
  • Cool house colors
  • What are some cool colors?

What are cool colors?

On the other side of the color wheel, we have cool colors, which have blue undertones. Cool colors are the colors of ice, water, sky, and grass. In design, cool colors tend to be calming, relaxing, and soothing, and they tend to recede. A pillow in a fabric like Waylon incorporates cool colors.

Cool color wheel

Examples of cool colors include violet (purple), blue, and green. You can make your own cool color wheel by using only these three colors as the primary colors, while using various mixtures of these colors as your secondary colors. Limiting yourself to a cool color wheel can be a useful exercise in color theory, as it is difficult to create any accent tone without a warm color present. 

Cool colors recede

In art, cool colors will appear to recede (think Van Gogh's "Starry Night"). Cool colors seem to recede in space because blue, the primary undertone of cool colors, has shorter wavelengths than other colors. While a blue figure, or any figure based in primary colors, may take up the same space as any other color, they make the space seem larger because of the smaller wavelength. 

Cool house colors

When used in a home décor project, cool colors can provide a calming feeling when used alone. They can also be used as accent colors for rooms with a warm color bias.

What are some cool colors?

  • Sage: A calmer alternative to grey and more emotional than white, sage is a green-based color that adds a soothing feeling to a room. 
  • Deep Purple: Midway between magenta an violet, deep purple goes well with warmer blues. This can be a great accent color. 
  • Navy: Navy blue is a timeless dark look that goes extremely well with neutral accents. Mixing navy with a grey or deep purple can give you an all-cool space with lots of flair. 
  • Beige: While beige is often thought of as a neutral color (like brown), cool beige is a  trendy version of beige with a pink base. 
  • Grey: The definition of neutral, we chose grey to be on the list of cool house colors because it is, perhaps the best color out there to accompany any other cool color on this list. 
  • Green: Earthy and grounding, green is a fresh and lively cool color that makes your space feel bold but natural. 
  • Light Blue: Still technically characterized as a cool color, light blue is a bright cool color that can be calming as well as enlivening. 

Warm vs. cool colors 

It’s no mistake! You absolutely can create a beautiful design by mixing warm and cool colors in your room. It’s kind of like planning a buffet with sweet and spicy dishes – the key is to add in another flavor. When you’re talking about mixing warm and cool colors, that other “flavor” is neutral.

Cool neutral colors

Neutrals are colors that aren’t included on the color wheel. Shades of browns, tans, golds, beige, and black, are usually considered to be warm neutrals, while shades of white, cream, ivory, gray, and silver are usually considered to be cool neutrals. To complicate matters a bit, many neutral color families (like brown) can actually be warm or cool, depending on the proportion of yellow or blue tones in the mix. 

Warm-cool colors

A "warm-cool color" is a color that blurs the lines between warm and cool to the point where you can't discern whether it is warm or cool. Magenta, as mentioned earlier, is an example of a warm-cool color. While technically cool, magenta is a color that feels warm. Using a mixture of blue and red, both on the opposite sides of the color wheel, magenta is a color that seemingly transcends the color spectrum. 

Cool or warm undertones?

If a color has cool undertones, it will lean gold or yellowish. Something will cool undertones will leak red or blue. For this reason, a mixture of red and blue, the quintessential colors of the warm and cold sides of the spectrum, respectively, will give you (sometimes) give you a color with the opposite undertone.

Mixing cool and warm colors

If you use a three-color design scheme, you can apply the “rule of three” when mixing warm and cool colors. In other words, divide the colors into components of 60 percent of a dominant color (applied to the walls), 30 percent of a secondary color (mainly in upholstery) and 10 percent of an accent color (like in accessories or an accent wall). Which color should be dominant? Whichever color you love the most - as long as it’s one you can live with.

Visit the color experts

Whether you’re drawn to cool or warm colors, your home is likely to feature a combination. Visit a Bassett Furniture store or request a catalog for cool vs warm examples to truly inspire you.

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