Behind the Scenes: How I Choose Calming Color Schemes

Over on the Happier Home blog, I wrote about how to pick artwork that creates a calm space. I talked about how color is one of the things to consider when looking for artwork that enhances a peaceful home. Here’s how I create calming color schemes in my artwork.

But first, a little color theory! Here’s how complementary color works.

Basically, complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Think of classic Christmas colors like the rich red of poinsettias and the deep green of evergreen trees. They look nice with each other, right? That’s because they are complementary to each other on the color wheel.

But if they are too similar in value (lightness/darkness) or saturation (intensity), they clash and “vibrate.”

“This initially exciting effect also feels aggressive and often even uncomfortable to our eyes. One finds it rarely used except for a screaming effect in advertising, and as a result it is unpleasant, disliked, and avoided.”

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color

So I use that effect sparingly, since I want to create a sense of peace and calm in my artwork. Clashing complementary colors don’t create a calming color scheme.

Now for more color theory: analogous color.

This is when the colors used are next to each other on the color wheel. Since there’s no wild variation to distract you, the effect is calming. This chart from Elle Decor does a great job illustrating various analogous color schemes:

An analogous color scheme is usually more calming than a complementary color scheme, since the colors are related to each other.

However, to really go for a calming color scheme, I have to dial the contrast down a lot.

My approach lately: nearly monochromatic with a hint of complementary color or a surprise color

It’s been my approach lately to work in neutrals and add something bright or metallic to it. I think it works well. The neutral colors are naturally calming, especially with soft transitions and subtle contrast. The bright or metallic colors break the monotony and offer a nice surprise. This shows that a little color goes a long way.

Brad Blackman, "Hope," 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope” acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 × 24 inches

Abstract landscape showing a snowy field with a high horizon and a gold mass against the gray sky.

Brad Blackman, “In Sun and Snow” acrylic on canvas. 10 × 10 inches

And sometimes, I break out the intense color, and it is calming yet energetic at the same time.

Since I love color so much, sometimes I crank up the saturation. While the colors are intense and somewhat complementary, the effect is an overall calm color scheme since the transitions are subtle.

Hazy, abstracted sunrise in pink, orange, and yellow behind a dark purple landscape.

Brad Blackman, “First Light” acrylic on canvas. 8 × 8 inches