Color Theory 101: What Wood Flooring Pros Should Know

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Color is one of the most important tools we have when it comes to visual expression. It’s important to understand the basics of color theory for any wood flooring pro, and for those working with designers, understanding the language of color theory becomes even more important. Why do we perceive color the way we do? Why do some colors seem to “go” together and others don’t? How can we easily adjust colors to get the color the customer wants? Understanding color theory is the key to answering these questions. 

The color wheel

Sir Isaac Newton created the color wheel in the mid-1600s when he studied light going through a prism. Today it’s the foundation for understanding color theory. The color wheel has primary, secondary and tertiary colors:

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The primary colors are red, yellow and blue.

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You create secondary colors by combining adjacent primary colors. So red and yellow make orange, red and blue make purple, and blue and yellow make green.

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Tertiary colors occur when you mix equal parts of an adjacent primary and secondary color together, creating blue-purple (violet), yellow-orange (amber), etc.

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How we adjust hues

In some ways it can be easier to look at color on a rectangle, like you see on the right of this illustration.

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The colors on the right here are our hues. Hues are each color at its most saturated.

On the Y axis, we have value, where we go between lightness and darkness. There are three aspects of value: tint, tone and shade.

The X axis shows saturation. Saturation is essentially how vibrant a color appears (see the sidebar at the end of this article).

Take a look at the illustration below. When you add white to a hue, that’s tint. When you add gray, that’s tone. When you add black, that’s shade.

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How do you choose colors?

When working on a project, we choose a palette: a particular range, quality or use of color—essentially, what colors we will use for a certain project.

When selecting a palette, simple color harmonies can help us; there are different combinations of colors that go well together. There are many types of combinations. Monochromatic palettes use one hue and variations in tint, tone or shade to create easy, pleasing combinations. Other common types of color harmonies that are used in design and art include:

Complementary colors are directly across from each other on the color wheel and provide nice contrast:

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Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel and form soothing combinations:

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Triadic colors are evenly spaced apart on the color wheel and complement each other:

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Tetradic harmonies can be square or rectangular. They use two pairs of colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.  They create maximum balance and contrast, making them particularly effective when creating visual interest:

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Color temperature

The temperature of color is extremely important in how we perceive light, and it must always be considered when you are planning for the color of wood flooring, because the temperature of the lighting can drastically impact the perception of the color of the wood flooring.

Color temperature is sometimes referred to as CCT, correlated color temperature. CCT is the light color emitted by a black body when heated to certain temperature. CCT is measured in Kelvins. The lower the Kelvin, the warmer the light source, and the higher the Kelvin, the cooler the source.

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The color temperature can define the way we experience the space we inhabit. Cooler colors mimic daylight and can be energizing. Warmer colors will give a more soothing, homey atmosphere. Today, light bulbs are available that have adjustable temperature, so the mood of the room can be adjusted depending on the time of day.

Another important aspect: CRI

There’s another aspect that plays a large role in how we perceive color with different light sources: CRI, or color rendering index. CRI defines a light source’s ability to accurately display color in comparison to a natural and standard light source.

CRI is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being natural daylight—our most accurate measure of color. CRI plays a huge role when choosing lighting for a space. And to see the full color potential of a wood flooring sample, it should always be viewed at 100 CRI.

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The color of wood

Wood species have their own natural colors, of course, but the temperature of the light dramatically changes how wood’s color looks. Unless a wood floor is in a windowless room with the same lights always on, the appearance of the color of the wood floor will change throughout the day. A walnut floor with a household incandescent light of 2,600 K will appear to have very warm, rich brown color. As the color temperature lowers, the walnut’s color will take on a cooler color, with a grayer, more washed-out appearance.

It’s extremely important to show clients how the color temperature will affect how their wood samples look. We once had a client who complained about the color of their wood flooring installation and wanted it to be adjusted slightly. We told them we would take care of it—and all we had to do was replace the light bulbs in their home!

A useful tool to show clients (and yourself!) how the appearance of wood will change depending on light temperature is one like this Scangrip CCT Scan device (available on Amazon for about $160). It has five light temperature settings:

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Here you can see how the color temperature drastically changes the appearance of this white oak floor as the light of the Scangrip CCT Scan device changes from 2,500K to 6,500 K:

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Watch a video explaining these concepts:

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