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How do you match colors?

Matching colors can seem tricky, but with some basic color theory knowledge and tips on combining hues, it can be easy to create color palettes that work beautifully together in any space. Keep reading for a comprehensive guide on effectively matching colors for any design project.

Understand Basic Color Theory

Before diving into matching colors, it helps to understand some basic principles of color theory. Here are some key elements to know:

  • The color wheel – The color wheel shows the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors and how they relate to one another. Knowing the color wheel helps in choosing color combinations.
  • Color harmonies – Color harmonies are combinations of colors that complement each other when used together. Common harmonies include complementary, analogous, and triadic.
  • Color temperature – Colors have different undertones of warm or cool. Warm colors (red, orange, yellow) energize, while cool colors (blue, green, purple) calm.
  • Color value – Value refers to how light or dark a color is. Lighter tints of colors tend to recede, while darker shades advance.

Choose a Base Color

When matching colors, it helps to start with one base color that sets the tone for the palette. The base color can be bold or neutral. Consider the purpose of the design project and choose a base accordingly. For example:

  • Bold base – Choosing a saturated color like cyan or orange makes the palette high-energy.
  • Neutral base – Shades of gray, brown, tan, or off-white are calming bases for many designs.
  • Natural base – Greens, blues, browns connect the palette to nature.
  • Personal preference – Select a base color you simply love and build from there.

Identify a Complementary Color

The most basic way to match colors is to choose complementary hues on the color wheel. Complementary colors are directly across from each other (like red and green or blue and orange). When paired, they create high contrast and vibrancy.

To add depth to a complementary palette, include different tints, shades, and tones of the two main hues. For example, a red and green palette might also incorporate burgundy, pink, olive, and lime.

Use Analogous Colors

Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel (like yellow, yellow-green, and green). They are low-contrast but work beautifully together. An analogous palette has a harmonious, calming effect.

Build out an analogous palette by including tints and shades. For example, a yellow, yellow-green, green palette could also feature lemon, chartreuse, and forest green.

Try a Triadic Color Scheme

A triadic palette uses three colors spaced evenly around the color wheel (like red, yellow, and blue). The balance of all three primary and secondary colors creates vibrancy.

A triadic scheme offers lots of flexibility. Try out different combinations like orange, green, and violet or teal, red, and yellow.

Use a Tetradic (Double Complementary) Scheme

Tetradic palettes pair two sets of complementary colors (like yellow and violet paired with red and blue-green). This creates a vibrant, dynamic palette full of contrast.

Tetradic schemes offer a color richness but can sometimes seem discordant. Try varying intensities and amounts of each color to keep the palette cohesive.

Match Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic palettes use tints, tones, and shades of a single base hue. It’s an easy way to experiment with striking color harmony.

Try a monochromatic palette in any color: Different shades of blue, gradients of orange, or mossy hues of green. Add white and black to expand the range.

Incorporate Neutral Colors

Don’t forget to incorporate neutral colors like white, gray, black, brown, tan, and beige. Neutrals add subtlety and sophistication to any vibrant palette. Pair bright colors with muted neutrals.

Make sure light neutrals (whites, tans) complement the undertones of your main colors. Cool neutrals (grays, blacks) work best with cool palettes, while warm neutrals pair with warm palettes.

Consider Undertones

When matching colors, pay attention to undertones. If the undertones clash, even complementary colors can seem messy and disjointed.

Build palettes around colors with harmonious undertones. For example, pair clear blues with fresh greens, or earthy browns with terracotta oranges.

Observe How Colors Interact

Some color combinations can vibrate or seem to jump out. Carefully observe how two colors interact alongside one another. If they strain the eyes, adjust the combination.

Soften jarring color interactions by separating colors, using muted or lighter tints, or integrating a neutral color to transition between the two.

Consider Lighting Conditions

The lighting colors present will impact the look of any palette. Account for lighting when finalizing color choices.

Yellow incandescent lighting warms up every palette. Blue daylight cools palettes down. Fluorescent lighting can skew undertones. Test swatches in all available lighting.

Use Color to Direct the Eye

Strategically place bold, bright colors to draw attention. Use muted neutrals to quiet areas down. Vary color intensities purposefully across a space.

For example, use a vivid red on a focal wall or intense blue on architectural details. Soften with creams and grays throughout the rest of the space.

Limit Your Palette

Sticking to just 3-5 colors in a well-considered palette creates cohesion. Resist the urge to incorporate too many disparate colors.

Build your core palette, then repeat those colors throughout to tie the space together. You can always incorporate seasonal accents later for variety.

Test Colors with Paint Swatches

When finalizing a palette, test out paint colors on swatches. Paint swatches make it easy to move colors around and preview combinations.

Paint large swatches of each color near each other. Observe them in both natural and artificial light at different times of day.

Preview Color Schemes Digitally

Online color palette generators provide an easy way to experiment with color schemes digitally. Assemble, save, and share prospective palettes.

Preview digital swatches on images of your space. Many programs let you upload room photos or schemes to digitally test colors.

Look to Nature for Inspiration

The colors in our natural world inherently work well together. Look to colorful flowers, minerals, stones, fruits, and landscapes for harmonious combinations.

A sunset palette of warm yellows, oranges, reds, and violets captures nature’s brilliance. Earthy greens, browns, and blues mimic the colors of the forest.

See How Artists Use Color

Browse artwork galleries and decor publications to see how gifted colorists put colors together. Let beautiful color combinations spark inspiration for your own palette.

Notice not just the colors artists use, but how they use them. See how color directs the eye, creates contrast, communicates moods, and interacts with light.

Match House Exterior and Interior Colors

Use colors on the exterior of your home to inform the interior palette. Repeating colors creates visual harmony between indoor and outdoor spaces.

For example, use exterior blue or green as an accent color inside. Echo exterior neutral tones like gray and tan on interior walls and furnishings.

Color Complement Analogous Colors Triadic Colors Tetradic Colors
Red Green Red-orange, Red-violet Red, Blue, Yellow Red, Green, Blue, Orange
Orange Blue Red-orange, Yellow-orange Orange, Violet, Green Orange, Blue, Violet, Yellow
Yellow Purple Yellow-orange, Yellow-green Yellow, Red, Blue Yellow, Purple, Blue, Green
Green Red Yellow-green, Blue-green Green, Orange, Violet Green, Red, Orange, Blue
Blue Orange Blue-green, Blue-violet Blue, Yellow, Red Blue, Orange, Red, Violet
Purple Yellow Blue-violet, Red-violet Purple, Green, Orange Purple, Yellow, Green, Red


Matching colors effectively just takes some basic color theory know-how and experimentation to find palettes you love. Consider the color wheel, color harmonies, value, and undertones when putting colors together. Preview paint swatches and digitally test schemes. Look to illuminating examples from nature and art. Curate your palette and enjoy the process of enlivening your home with color.