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Cool Colors: What Are They and How Do You Use Them?

Colors provide far more than just decoration. They have a direct effect on how people feel and how messages and information are identified and magnified. They affect emotions and feelings as well.

Colors are often categorized into two primary groups because of these impacts: warm and cool. Cool colors tend to be calm and relaxing. Warm colors are the opposite; they boost emotion and give a feeling of visual warmth.

It’s no surprise that warm colors are associated with the sun and fire, while cool colors tend to be associated with water and ice.

What Are Cool Colors: Starting Off with the Basics

Color wheel with the transition to white in the middle.

To understand visually what cool colors involve, it’s best to look at a color wheel. You’ll see a rainbow in the form of a circle ranging in colors from reds all the way to yellows, then to greens and blues, and all the way back to red after purple.

The warm colors involve everything from purple-pink to full yellow. The cool colors are all the shades from light green to purple before pink starts again.

The two families of colors make up opposing halves of the color circle or palette, and they always have a family of shades for each primary color involved in either family.

Warm vs Cool Colors

Warm Colors Cool Colors
Colors Redorangeyellow Bluepurplegreen
Symbolism Heat, light, motion Water, darkness, stillness
Emotion Passion, coziness, playfulness Soothing, calmness
Utility Make a space cozier Expand a space

The Emotional Influence of Colors

A contrast of red and blue to demonstrate cool versus warm colors.

Where reds and yellows often evoke images of fire and blood, warmth and heat, cool colors involve everything that is colder, cooler, and even icy. Blues and grays are often associated with looking in the distance and the cool atmosphere of the mountains. And greens of all shades are frequently associated with life, moisture, forests, and damp glens. These elements have been used for centuries by artists, painters, and crafters. When old paintings or pieces of artwork are restored, people marvel at the vividness of color choices originally used.

In modern times, colors are intentionally used to help reduce stress and calm nerves, especially when people have to sit in a particular area for an extended time. Many waiting rooms are often painted in light hues of cool colors, and some people may even fall asleep as they relax.

Debate and Differences

One thing to keep in mind is that the line between cool colors and warm colors is fuzzy and not well defined. As a result, the differences between purple and pink-red and yellow versus green blurs, causing some purists to argue about what’s officially on one side of the fence or the other. It doesn’t really matter much in practice. The variation is so slight, it rarely gets applied, as most folks either clearly want a warm color or a cool color painted or used in a particular context. More of the theoretical application tends to happen in art and photography classes where students are trained to understand how to interpret principles of color correctly for professional practice.

Also, keep in mind, colors change notably depending on the light they are viewed under. Many interior lights actually provide a yellowish hue to their illumination versus a strict white light. That will also have an impact on the interpretation of border-line cool colors with warmer options. Once somebody applies light correction or opens the drapes, the difference becomes obvious in how much light can change how the human eye perceives color.

People express their desires and interests with colors just as they do with language. No surprise, when people want a place to calm down or be comfortable, cool colors are regularly used. This is particularly common in naturally warmer locations such as areas with arid climates or humid, hot tropical weather. Warmer colors tend to be reserved for colder climates such as alpine locations.

Cultural Connotations and Associations of Cool Colors

Crown over wooden table, vintage filtered.

As mentioned earlier, cool colors are regularly associated with calmness and relaxation. In terms of cultural meaning, blues, greens, and deep purples are often linked with royalty, trust, maturity, and wisdom. Generally, they tend to be connected to age and experience in contrast to youth and hotheaded emotions. For many centuries, deep blue and purple were considered the rarest colors to produce and reserved for prestige and even leadership.

In modern times, many of the cultural associations with colors carry forward and are still used heavily by companies. Big Blue, for example, has long been an industry reference to International Business Machines, better known as IBM. In another example, John Deere tied itself to agriculture, as it is a tractor and farm equipment company. Forest green bordered with yellow became the company’s recognized badge of honor.

Historically, each of the cool colors has also been tied to specific ideas:

  • Green – nature, sustainability, politics, growth
  • Blue – loyalty, honor, truth, prestige, confidence
  • Purple – royalty, aristocracy, power, wealth

Visual Impacts of Cooler Colors

Lake Tahoe area after a winter snow storm.

One of the most common uses of cooler colors tends to be as a background. Whether it’s the faraway scene in a painting with a landscape stretching out into the blues and grays, or the depth of a forest going deeper and deeper into fading greens, cool colors are regularly used for wide-shot views. They oftentimes change the scale of size reference, making things in the distance look smaller than they really are.

A common shot is that of a coastal house or a lighthouse against the immensity of the ocean behind it, for example. Many tech advertisements and photographs also phase things in shades of monochromatic blue to give a sense of electricity and digital automation versus live human involvement per se. Lightning is almost always portrayed in light blues and whites against a dark gray sky, again improving the immensity of the scene of something huge far, far away. And then, of course, there is the immensity of space portrayed in deep dark blue as well.

Designers frequently find themselves needing to be ad hoc translators, as laypeople tend to associate cooler colors with darker hues versus outright “cool colors” on the color wheel. This phrase misplacement has been the source of confusion more than once with a client and a designer not paying close attention to what a party is actually asking for in a color spectrum selection. In reality, many of the cooler colors tend to be lighter hues with a tendency to lean towards the gray versions, which are the opposite of vibrancy and strong, bright colors.

Practical Use in Design

Four people in dark military uniforms.

Cool colors are ideal for easy-to-view contrasts. Bright contrasting colors against a background of a cool color tend to stand out and be far more distinct. It’s not a surprise that cool colors are used frequently for backgrounds on signs, logos, labels, and even shirt designs. Hawaiian shirts often feature a cool color background design to emphasize floral prints or similar tropical island motifs.

Cool colors are also used in uniforms quite a bit. Both police and firefighters have for many years used some kind of variation of a cool color for shirt uniforms, only switching to a dark or midnight blue style or black in recent years. Naval uniforms still tend to prefer the light blues for work shirt uniforms, only switching to whites or dark dress blues for ceremonial presence. Mechanics regularly use greens or blues for easy uniform wear that can get dirty and not show stains easily. And foresters as well as rangers and park attendants are almost guaranteed to be in some kind of green to associate them with nature.

Tips for Application

Cool colors are typically the opposite of heavy saturation practices seen with bright, warm colors. With a few exceptions, such as deep purples or royal blues, many cool colors tend to be muted and light in application. When combined in hues, they often work well with graduated layers that extend the visual effect of looking at something in the distance.

Many artists and designers follow what is typically referred to as the 80/20 color rule. That involves 20 percent of a layout incorporating strong, bold coloring, while 80 percent of the same display works with muted and neutral coloring. The combination helps focus attention on what is truly saturated and strong visually.

Cool Colors in Interior Design

The interior of a modern living room with a dark blue sofa next to a brick wall.

Applying cool colors to interior design and fabrication is more of an art than simply choosing a particular shade and being done with it. Many times, cool colors involve a blend or mix of colors versus just a singular pick, which often happens with warm colors or contrasts. Think in terms of a sports car; it’s usually a solid bold color with a secondary dark or vivid contrast for the trim, and no more. Cool colors, on the other hand, are applied with an assortment of shades, creating a monochrome effect that may include three to six different shades of the same color family.

Why Use Cool Colors for an Interior?

Typically, a home or living area needs to be a balance of creating a relaxing atmosphere as well as being able to bounce light effectively around the room. Dark and moody places often end up having the effect of a depressing and sour mood. Instead, bright but soft colors help lighten up a person’s perspective with a sense of energy. The calming effect of cool colors is well known and used intentionally, especially in young children’s rooms to help them calm down.

Working with Cool Colors

The base color is always the foundation that sets the tone for the rest of a cool color application. This can be different versions of a color, but in most cases, it is the lightest version. Then, different shades of the same color are applied for framing or contrast. So, for example, a room might have a very light shade of purple with darker shades for the door and window frames. Alternative base colors can include shades of white as well as grays, a regular favorite for a modern bedroom feel. The other advantage of a soft color base is that it tends to give a neutral effect to the room, allowing the owner to then place furniture in it that pops and stands out.

Color Contrast and Complementary Colors for the Finish

Three purple irises on a yellow background.

Contrast colors tend to be very distinct, opposite, or even different from the base cool color. Instead, colors in the same family or monochrome may be subtle shades different from the base color but still very much the same family. So, different shades of gray tend to be a favorite mix for living rooms and bedrooms. Light green walls with a darker green carpet give a sense of being in a forest or a meadow. Blues are often set against a base of white or a very light blue for an ocean or watery feeling. Some very interesting effects can be made with a total monochromatic effect, which is frequently seen in movies to make actors pop out in the shot.

Try, Try, and Try Again

Working with cool colors takes some practice. The best way to apply and see the effect, especially with the given lighting in a certain room, is to practice with test spots and applications. Take groups of light colors and place them next to each other in the room with a test patch painted on the wall. Put a drape or carpet sample in the same area to see how the color changes with natural light versus artificial lighting. What you will see are dramatic changes, but the cool color set is still generally the same. This is because so much of what we see in color is an effect of lighting and how our eyes perceive the sensation as the light bounces off and hits our receptors. With practice, you will find the right mix of cool colors for the room you are working in, and the process becomes easier for other rooms from there forward.

Remember, unlike warm colors that are bold and distinct, cool colors take a bit of thinking and strategy in the application. They provide the best effect when they are subtle and incorporated into the mix of an overall look. They are not used to be the singular, outstanding focal point. Like a painting, cool colors are usually the broad landscape that makes up most of the view. It’s best to use them that way when working on interior design.

Tying Cool Colors Together

Abstract marble texture with blue and purple colors.

Again, cool colors are regularly relied on for displays and applications that blend in and provide harmony and balance to an overall visual collection, and oftentimes convey depth or distance visually.

They might seem a bit complex at first, but in reality, cool colors are standard for backgrounds and the large majority of color scheme design for a room, an advertisement, a display, a sign, and more.

So, the next time you’re watching a TV show or looking at a magazine ad, focus on how cooler colors are applied. You will find they are universal and appear in just about every context where broad depth is needed to emphasize a key focal point better.

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