Warm vs. Cool Colors: How to Make Any Room Match the Vibe You're After

Before you pick up a paintbrush, here's what designers want you to know about color temperatures.

Paint is often referred to as the easiest way to transform a room, but that's only true after picking a color. After all, a kaleidoscope can be applied, so sometimes choosing one for your walls can feel like the hardest hurdle in a transformation. But there is one trick DIYers and designers use to decide on the right shade more quickly. They simply figure out whether they need a "warm" or a "cool" color.

"Warm colors can make a room feel exciting and bold because they have a natural fun energy to them," says designer and best-selling author Emily Henderson. "Cool colors are more calming, since they are the colors that you would find in nature."

Paying attention to a color's warmth or coolness can set the mood of a room, and pull together its other details more seamlessly. If you're looking to create a palette that pinpoints a certain emotion—whether it's "cozy," "happy," or "whimsical,"—then this thought process should come in handy. Alongside Henderson, Julia Marcum of Chris Loves Julia shares her insights on choosing the best shade for any room so that the process is actually easy from start to finish.

What Are Warm Colors?

According to Henderson, warm shades can mostly be defined as oranges, browns, yellows, reds, pinks, and whites with warm undertones. It's possible to choose very saturated variations of these options, but Henderson wouldn't rule a bold pick out. "If that's what you want, then I think they work best in smaller rooms like bathrooms and bedrooms," she says. "But as long as you love the color you're working with and sprinkle in cool shades for balance, you can use warm shades in any room."

Marcum suggests using these colors particularly in common areas of a home. "I like to keep the kitchen and the family room warm," she says. "These spaces provide a lot of comfort, and when you walk into them, you should feel relaxed." She also recommends a matte finish for its family-friendly use. "If it's really wipeable, that's my favorite," she adds. "I love to do the same tone on the trim in a semi-gloss."

Both designers add that it's important to look at the other aspects of the room to ensure that your choice will complement them. Marcum points to the floors, while Henderson focuses on cabinets. "If you have a room with a ton of orange-toned wood that you aren't able to replace, then I personally would offset that with a cooler shade," she says. "But aside from that, just make sure your space has some cool tones for contrast and you should be set."

Warm Color Combinations

For palette ideas, Henderson gravitates toward blush and mustard combinations, or a rust and warm cream blend. Marcum is into terracotta walls with an olive green sofa, or golden ochre mixed with plum.

What Are Cool Colors?

On the flipside, Henderson describes cool tones as blues, greens, blacks, purples, and whites with cool undertones. "They are my go-to colors for my personal style because they make my space feel airy, light, and calm," she says. Like warm tones, both designers agree that any room can take on cool shades with the right balance. "I prefer to keep things matte when working with cooler shades, but if we are talking about painting cabinets, kitchens, and bathrooms, then a hint of sheen is necessary," Henderson notes.

Cool colors like blue and gray will likely enhance hints of those shades in the room, so it's important to incorporate different textures for more interest (the same goes for warm shades, but used as a diffuser). "For cool colors, you should sprinkle in wood tones, leather, and gold or brass accents so the room doesn't run the risk of being too cold," Henderson says. "A room with too many warm tones can feel dated and overwhelming, so you can offset warm tones with soft textures and include cool-toned whites and black accents."

Cool Color Combinations

Marcum recommends trying a warm blue shade with a cognac leather accent, like in a bedroom, while Henderson suggests sage green with a light gray, perhaps in an entryway.

Understanding Color Undertones

One more thing about choosing a color based on this balance: Don't forget about undertones! "There are warm and cool tones to every color," Marcum says. "If you look at a set of gray paints individually, for example, you might not be able to detect their undertones. But if you look at them all together, you'll notice how some grays have blue tones—those are 'cool' grays. Some might have a yellow or pink tone, and those are 'warm' grays. Once you can recognize undertones, you'll be able to see how colors truly work together, warm or cool."

Paying attention to the undertones of a color can bring out the warmth or coolness of any shade, making it easier to play around with colors as you get more comfortable. And as you do, you'll also notice that warm and cool shades shouldn't be entirely separate, either. "A well-balanced room will have a combination of both warm and cool tones, though not necessarily an equal amount of both," Henderson says. "Don't keep all your cool tones on one side of the room and your warm tones on the other. Pepper the colors around the room for a cohesive look."

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