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Decision Time…Cooking with Color, with or without a Recipe


By Barbara Jacobs

Ready to cook with color?

Don’t start yet! Here are some questions to answer before using color recipes.

Q: What is a “color recipe?”

A: A pre-set group of colors that the paint company recommends will work together.

When you go to a paint store, you see thousands of paint color chips. It can be confusing! To remedy the confusion, paint companies also provide, in nearby displays, many color combinations they recommend that you can use. They also have online many recommended color combinations.

 Barbara Jacobs

 Color design and photos by Barbara Jacobs

The decision on whether to use a color recipe requires consideration of the specific location and the client’s own unique set of concerns.

Most major paint companies provide numerous color palettes that are based on either trends or popularity. Granted, this makes it “easy” to find colors that seem to go together. Often, that's where it ends...and once the color is on the walls, the room has to be repainted. In fact, I've had clients tell me that they tried the “recipes” only to find them unappetizing, or even distasteful, in their settings.

Q: Can these pre-packaged color combinations work?

A: Maybe.

You can try them out, just by picking the ones you like best. Whether they will actually work in your home or place of business is another story entirely! Many people actually start with a “color recipe” and after trying them out, either test another such combination or make their own modifications. In either case, it’s usually a test not based on specific characteristics of the space but rather on “likes.”

Q: Who uses “color recipes”?

A: This is not only for homeowners who cook!

These company-recommended color combinations are so prevalent that I have to guess that even some designers use them. After all, they do seem to make color selection easier—or, at least, provide one kind of starting point.

Q: Why would you not use a predefined color palette?

A: Each space has its own set of unique circumstances. There are no “recipes” for successful color use.

But, there are some specific, very important considerations that are integral to creating a supportive color palette.

 Barbara Jacobs
The bottom line is that there are no sure-fire “recipes” for creating the best color palette for an area.

Granted, for our own homes we can freely allow our personal preferences to be part of the mix. In that regard, it’s a bit different than for a public space like an office, school, manufacturing facility, restaurant or other hospitality location, health-care facility, or religious space.

Putting it all together requires much more consideration than following a recipe because, while certain principles exist, each location and each client includes its own unique set of concerns.

Color decisions for interiors will present some obvious differences from exteriors.

But ultimately, it's a philosophy and approach to color selections that sets the tone. The skill and experience of the individuals making color recommendations are always a major factor in how all those pieces fit together.

No recipes?

The bottom line, the key to remember in using color in a supportive way, is that there are NO ”recipes” for creating the best color palette for any area.

Start with this partial checklist to create effective color palettes. Ask—then answer—these questions.

1. Who lives, works, studies, or plays there? What is their gender and age? Believe it or not, it matters! Even children's ages are a consideration.

2. What is the activity that takes place in the space under consideration? Quiet and contemplative, active, or social...the right colors will help create the most valuable, effective space.

3. How much of the day or night will that area be used? Your color selections are best related to the amount of time anyone will spend in a particular space.

4. What's the size of the room? Ceiling height? Even if you don't knock down walls, a small space can be designed to maximize its best features.

5. Architectural detail? Emphasize or mask it? Not all architectural detail is beautiful. The right colors will help create the best look and function for any room.

6. What is the lighting in the space? You've heard that “Light Rules!” It's true: the appearance of color is directly related to the light quality (lamp color) in any space. It's called “metamerism.”

7. What is the direction of the light source in the space? Consider the source, especially with lighting. The angle of light reflectance will make a difference in how the entire room is perceived.

8. Is there permanent material on the floor? What’s the percentage of surface area that a floor contributes? Quite a bit, for the most part. So, it’s naturally a huge consideration.

9. What is the wall surface and floor covering? Is it permanent? Solid color? Patterned? Texture and pattern are critical. We will usually want to avoid highly reflective surfaces (too much to go into, in this post).

10. Furnishings are a consideration, also. Not for “matching” as much as for “creating harmony and focus.” Consider furnishings as color, space, texture, volume. Furnishings are sculpture, even in the most prosaic environments.

11. Personal color preferences have more of a place in our homes than in a workplace or other public setting, where the focus is more outward.

I look forward to addressing these and other very detailed subjects specifically at another time.

Like the flavor and the feeling?

As with the flavor and preparation of foods, pre-defined color palettes set the flavor of your public space or personal residence. This is the overall feeling of the outside or inside of a building. If you love the taste, and how it makes you feel—emotionally and physically—then go with the recipe!

If you want to refine the flavor and effect, then add salt—or sugar—or spice—or herbs—or oil—or heat—or anything else that's comparable from the world of color that combines with your intuition to produce the environmental meal that you will enjoy as part of your healthy life, for many years!

Do you have a personal favorite color-flavor? Let's hear about it, see it, taste it and feel it!


Barbara Jacobs

Can we talk?...about color, that is. That’s our objective with this ongoing discussion—a Color Exchange, if you will—in this Durability + Design blog. Whether we know it or not, color affects all of us, in many ways. So let’s engage in this exchange and explore this mysterious and exciting subject of color, its effects, and its applications.



Tagged categories: Color; Color + Design; Color selection; Design

Comment from julie boney, (11/14/2011, 8:16 AM)

I love the echo hues full spectrum DUNE! It brings such warmth and light all at the same time! Thanks Barbara for creating such an awesome color for my home!

Comment from Donna Frasca, (11/14/2011, 8:35 AM)

This is a great way to choose color but the only thing I disagree with here is paint companies refer to their colors as "color palettes" or "color schemes" usually not color recipes unless they are clearly referring to a specific food item for reference. Color Recipes definitely work - I've been designing color palettes using my Color Recipes© for years now but the only difference is that I actually use food as inspiration for a color palette thus the the name "recipe" otherwise it seems like it's just a "color palette". My favorite color flavor? Too many to mention but you can see them all at my Color Recipes blog:

Comment from Marcia Walter, (11/14/2011, 12:00 PM)

I liked the article & your point of view is valid and instructive. I've never had clients who've used paint color recipes, but I would say this article is one to keep for clients to peruse as you work with them. Then they can see in writing all the factors you consider as their consultant. No easy task.

Comment from Barbara Jacobs, (11/15/2011, 2:03 PM)

Thank you Julie, Donna, and Marcia. I appreciate your contributions. My focus on the idea of "recipes" is not about a particular brand of paint or what any individual has created, but rather about the concept that there's a 'pat' answer for color recommendations of any type. The idea of any colors--whether singly or in combination as "schemes," "palettes," or "recipes"--that are recommended as the right,or best,colors for any particular environment simply because they are deemed to go together or that they are part of a trend combination--is contrary to what I call "effective, supportive color design." Each situation needs to be addressed on it's own set of unique characteristics and functional requirements for any kind of space,and the people using the space. The well-worn, blanket statement that "blue is relaxing" is just one good example. Hopefully that's more clear now, and I apologize for any confusion.

Comment from Diane Stewart, (11/15/2011, 2:38 PM)

Barbara, this is a great overview, I totally agree with you. I'm often appalled at the color schemes that I see in stores. As a residential paint color consultant, I'm about picking the right colors for the right environment.

Comment from Carolyn Atkinson, (11/15/2011, 2:50 PM)

A point of view from the southern hemisphere - I think this article by Barbara is great! I often have to say to my clients that colour seen in 'recipe' style brochure is corrupted by the print process - so it often is not 'true' and then there is that confusion and frustration to cope with - and the picture that often accompanies the colours doesn't take into account the reality of the customer/clients actual interior or exterior and their light sources- natural and artificial- and their existing colours in soft furnishings etc or other elements.As a start point to achieving the look that they desire these 'recipe' formats are ok but must be judged by large [real paint]samples of the colours being considered and trialling them in the environment to see what other things influence how the colour looks. To blindly accept and go on to use the colour combinations is akin to the 'one size fits all' concept with clothing - and we all know that doesn't work! The 'recipe' combination of colours offers ideas to create moods and harmonies - but must be considered as a 'suggestion' that may work or may not. Personalising the colours to accomodate the client and their needs rather than 'buying the package' and regretting later the lack of thought involved, is very risky. I work for a paint company and do this sort of 'recipe' or colour combining format as part of my job but I always add a footnote that colour needs to be viewed in reality and other combinations will work just as well and that this is the start of the colour journey.Colour is personal - each person will feel differently about both colour and the mood it creates according to their emotional response to it, which is how it should be - we are individuals!

Comment from lynne whiteside, (11/16/2011, 11:43 AM)

One size does not fit all...color receipts are the main stay for some consultants. I see the same colors all over the city. You know whether it's BB or EB, strictly by the color combinations and preference for dark or light (mostly dark). The same colors over and over again, used in the Same Combinations, well, what can I say, this is a small city with consultants who are Big Fish in our Small Pond here by the Bay. I truly think everyone finds their own style, a color or colors that work so beautifully together that you just want to pass it on.

Comment from lynne whiteside, (11/16/2011, 12:00 PM)

if the color combinations put out by the paint store Truly Worked, then we would be out business. It's more to get you started on the journey, choosing colors that you are drawn to, and want in your personal space. I heard the phrase 'customized atmospheres', yes, that sounds right. Barbara, this is wonderful, my continued gratitude to you for speaking and sharing this knowledge.

Comment from Kristie Barnett, (11/16/2011, 8:54 PM)

What a fabulous and insightful article, Barbara. I have never, ever recommended a pre-picked color palette of a paint company. I have, of course, developed some of my own along the way - but they only work in similar contexts (like a palette of colors that works well in a space with lots of wood with orange undertones). Context and relationship to other fixed colors is everything. Again, great post!

Comment from Barbara Jacobs, (11/18/2011, 9:28 AM)

Thanks Carolyn, Lynne, and Kristie - All good points. I agree that Yes,of course there will be colors that lend themselves well to similar contexts, and that these are "suggestions. Our creativity as designers comes in where we can depart from that and still create harmonious and unique applications of color. It is, as Kristie says, about the relationship.

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