• Wei Shen

When we talk about interior colors, something more important is actually overlooked

Since this is an interior design blog, we will talk less about aspects that can be accomplished by other professionals like engineers and contractors and give more weight to the essential role of an interior designer, that is, to provide aesthetic values.

Some may have been puzzled each time, after carefully selecting colors for their homes, the result has never been as astonishing as expected. Their favorite colors are not doing a significant job impacting the home's aesthetic level.

While there has been an abundance of tips about how to use interior colors, including my own post (click here), today we are going to discuss a very useful but most of the time, overlooked perspective of color- the value of color. After understanding this magic tool, your level of handling colors would take a leap.

A brief of color value

Generally speaking, one color has three basic attributes: hue, saturation, and value.

Hue is the attribute of color experienced first in the course of human development. Is it red, green, or blue? This is the aspect that is mostly focused on by the public. It is understood easily by anyone who has no color blindness.

Saturation refers to the amount of hue. In other words, how pure or intense the color is. As we usually perceive, a highly saturated color is bold, while a less saturated color is mute or dull.

Value is the term used to describe how light or dark a color is, commonly referred to as brightness. When two colors differ in terms of their relative lightness or darkness, they are of different values. Traditionally speaking, the lighter the color, the higher its value.

Red in different values, Image from the internet

Blue in different values, Image from the internet

The value of a given color is changed by adding either black or white to it. When taking out the hue of a color, what's left is the black and/or white that define the brightness of the color. The value scale below shows the brightness/darkness of colors. From darkest black to brightest white, with different shades of greys in between. Different hues of color can have the same value.

Image from the internet

Above is a quick introduction of value in color. Now, look at the two interior scenes below. A dominant color is applied in each case. One is sage green, the other is dusty pink. Which scene would you prefer?

Images from

I will definitely vote for the first one. Why?

It's not because I prefer sage green. It needs to be answered from the aspect of the value in colors. Let's take out the hue of all colors in those scenes. Just like converting a colored photo into a black and white one:

In the first picture, we see the brightest white on the ceiling, the darkest black as the wainscot and the picture frame, as well as the trim of the wall paint; between the two extreme ends, we also see a good amount of variations in greys. All the greys have different levels of brightness and can be distinguished easily without the presence of color hues. The distinguishable variation in shades is what we call value contrast.

Value contrast creates visual interests and excitements.

Think of a black and white movie. All you can see is made visible by value contrast. Color is totally extra to understanding what is going on. If the actual colors in all objects had similar values, the eyes will get tired quickly by watching the movie where everything blends together in similar shades of greys, because they have to work very hard to figure out what is going on.

That is the situation in the second interior scene above. Not only does everything here have a very close brightness level, the room also lacks the extreme shades: no brightest white nor darkest black. There is little contrast that can create focal points, therefore nothing naturally attracts human eyes and triggers the curiosity of exploring.

Value contrast used in paintings

When relating the aesthetic of interior designs and value contrasts, we can borrow some rules of the painting world.

Chiaroscuro (from Italian chiaro, “light,” and scuro, “dark”), is a technique employed in the visual arts to represent light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects.

Color is the most attractive quality of a painting but, what we usually mean by "color", is the hue, which is just one of the three properties that define a color (hue, saturation, and value). Believe it or not, value is more important than hue to the design and success of a painting. Because it is the dark-to-light range that makes for strength in a painting.

The larger the range of different color values, the more appealing the painting is.

By decoloring the photo of the original painting, we have the black and white version next to the colored painting below.

Édouard Manet: Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

After converting into black and white, it's very easy to recognize the different color values. In this portrait by French painter Édouard Manet, where is the brightest white? The opened book and the half-revealed shirt cuff which are in the center of the painting. Then there is a very light grey on the face, the hand, and the frame of a painting in Japanese style in the background. Medium greys and dark greys are spread on the trousers, patterns on the chair, books on the table. Various shades of grey even appear on the screen in the background, which adds proper details to this painting. Where is the darkest black? It's on the man's jacket and the background wall, as well as underneath the table. Thus, white-light grey-medium grey-dark grey-black, the range of color values has stretched to a wide extent, contributing to creating the sense of depth and details, eventually, making the painting more interesting.

Another example below. A painting by Dutch painter Gerard ter Borch.

Where is the brightest white? The white hems on the coat of the woman on the left of the painting and a small highlight on the letter in the reader's hand, as well as the tiny reflection on the Dutch brass chandelier. Then the light grey takes a big portion on the reader's dress and appears also on their skins, medium and dark greys are allocated on the floor, on the details of furniture and other objects, even on the frame of the wall panel looming in the background. This painting has a dark ambiance since we see black as the darkest value occupying a great area in both foreground and background.

Gerard ter Borch: Woman Reading a Letter (c. 1660–62), Royal Collection, London

It is such obvious and delicate brightness changes that formulate the success of a fascinating piece of art.

We can also witness the power of value contrast by comparing similar paintings in different levels of value contrasts.

In recent years, Morandi colors have gained popularity in the fashion industry as well as the interior design field.

Morandi colors are derived from the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, a famous Italian printmaker and oil painter. In his paintings, the subjects are simple objects that could be easily seen in our kitchen, such as cups, plates, bottles, boxes, and so on. However, these everyday objects present a distinguished senior feeling through different brushes and color combinations.

Although those paintings are generally famous for the muted tones, I find some are much more preferable to the others, in regards to value contrasts.

Images from

Above are two paintings by Morandi. They have similar compositions but different color applications. In order to reflect the value contrasts, let's do the same exercise by converting them into black and white versions.

As we can easily see, the first painting has a much larger range of different brightnesses (values). In the front row of pots, there are white, light grey, dark grey, as well as very dark outlines on each object; in the back row, there are very deep grey and the darkest color-black. This dynamic of color values stimulates the eye and creates strong energy, regardless of the original color hues, which is why I feel much more enjoyable while looking at it. You can test to feel the reduced beauty by covering the white pot.

Whereas in the second painting, the entire space is covered with similar shades of light and medium greys, there is no brightest white, nor deepest black, therefore no focal point naturally luring the eye.

If both of the color schemes are applied to an interior space, the former one will generate a more delightful visual experience.

Value contrast used in exterior and interior design

Below are some opposite examples where value contrasts are not smartly considered, so the results are quite generic, undesirable, and without a high level of design quality. Positive examples are also followed to compare.

Images from

In both the images above, the outdoor furniture sets are blended into the background as well as the wood decks, due to the similar brightnesses of their colors. The entires scenes look tedious, dull, and stereotypical. Even the white cushions in the first image cannot highlight the scene, because they are not placed against a dark enough chair, therefore, the beauty of brightness contrast is nowhere to be found.

In order to stretch the variety of color values, while planning the color combination of a given space, indoor or outdoor, using the technique of classic paintings discussed previously by adding extremely bright and extremely dark colors will easily do the trick.

Images from

As we can tell from the two garden designs above, the practice of using black and white as the contrast to the majority of natural colors such as greenery and wood tones that have a medium brightness, enlivens the space effortlessly, revealing a great sense of design.

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I selected two interior design examples above to demonstrate the impact of lacking value contrasts. Once again, let's do the same exercise by converting them into black and white versions.

It is obvious that regardless of whether the general atmosphere is light or dark, both interiors have a very limited spectrum of color brightnesses. Conscequently, they cannot escape the fate of being drowsy. Lacking brightness contrast usually makes us feel bored and lose focus quickly. In other words, the room doesn't excite us.

In the end, I also selected two examples where the interiors have a vast extent of different color brightnesses. Even without converting to black and white versions, we can tell that the color schemes are much more intriguing in regards to value variations.

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So next time when planning to renovate or decorate your home, try to engage a color palette that covers a large scope of brightness and darkness. In this way, you will definitely have a good start of avoiding a boring result.


Shenwei Design is thriving to accommodate everyone who is passionate about life, who embraces details in the day-to-day living experience, and who loves challenges. Share your thoughts in the comment area below and let me know how your dream home looks like.