Afraid of colour? Here's how to get over it

If colour at home scares you, you might just have chromophobia. For those looking to move past it, Fiona McKenzie Johnston speaks to the experts to find out how

Edward Bulmer's ‘Nicaragua’ used to great effect in a Norfolk house by Carlos Garcia

Paul Massey

In the opening chapter of the artist David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia, he recalls attending a party at a collector’s house where the interior was “endless like an egg must look endless from the inside… There is a kind of white that is more than white. . . this white was aggressively white.” Admittedly, Batchelor is not one of life’s minimalists – which you’ll know if you’ve ever seen his work (he’s got a show at Compton Verney, until October 2nd) and we know that minimalism, if approached correctly, can look serenely exquisite. We also know that there are times when all white – or all grey, or all beige – can look less than lovely, and decidedly cookie-cutter clinical.

Colour and pattern can be useful; they’re forgiving of spills and the general detritus of life, they bring warmth and calm, and yet some of us struggle to employ them, even if we want to. The word chromophobia, when used by Batchelor, literally refers to an aversion of the use of colour in product or design – but there are ways of introducing it, gradually, if desired, and in a way that isn’t overwhelming. “I believe that every man, woman and child alive has within him a true instinct for colour,” wrote the great American designer Dorothy Draper in Decorating is Fun!, while conceding that “sometimes that instinct has been neglected till it is rather deeply buried.” (We should add a disclaimer here that chromophobia is a spectrum, and the more intense end is far from trivial for those who suffer from it.)

Getting started

Susan Deliss recommends starting small when it comes to incorporating colour, in just one room, and not making it permanent. “Buy a piece of fabric and drape it over your headboard, or over the arm of a chair, and just see how you feel with it before you commit,” she suggests (which is wise advice for anyone considering an upholstery project.)

Similarly, Emma Deterding of Kelling Designs names “colourful lamps and lampshades, cushions, and rugs; accessories are a cost-effective way of adding colour and pattern and can be changed up with ease.” She also proposes “adding paint or wallpaper to the backs of shelving. And if you have storage cabinets, or a full-sized drinks cabinet, consider painting a mural on the inside of the doors.” It’s a means of becoming accustomed to more decoration in your eyeline – and, if you wish to, you can then open the doors to the drinks cabinet “to create a focal point when you’re entertaining.”

Pattern can be easier than colour

Regarding the difference between colour and pattern, it is worth knowing that the latter may initially be easier than a block colour – or the ‘colour pops’ so often recommended in online chat forums – especially if the base colour is the same as whatever other colour you’ve used. A cushion or curtains in a chintz on a white background is less of a punctuation mark in an all-white room than straight burgundy, turquoise, or Barbiecore pink. And if you’re not keen on florals, there’s always stripes, or ticking, which can be quite neutral. Ainsberry Fabrics has got a variety of colourways, some particularly subtle.

Muted, sea green walls in a guest bathroom in Edward Bulmer's house

Lucas Allen

Choosing the colour

It can seem hard even to pick a colour – and a bit childish, in a ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ manner – which is again where a pattern or print comes in handy; you can take colours from it. Sophie Ashby’s motto is “start with the art,” – she’ll pick the colours that she’s going to use in a project from a favourite painting that hangs in the room. Alternatively, think about the plants and flowers you love, or whether you’re more drawn to rolling hills or the sea; “I only use colours that are found in nature,” explains Pallas Kalamotusis, who’s layered such hues on white in her Kensington flat. A similar approach can be seen at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, which is arguably one of the greatest interiors in England.

The importance of tone

Speaking of nature, Edward Bulmer points out that “every colour can be delivered in a myriad of ways. Fundamentally, the colours we use in decoration were originally created from pigment, and in the past pigment only came either from the earth, or from the plant and animal kingdom, or from minerals.” It’s this that is going to inform the feel of whichever colour you choose, and it’s why there are so many different shades of blue, green – and indeed even white. “Minerals give a strong, clear colour, while I believe that earth pigment is fundamental to getting colour that is harmonious; earth pigments can make any colour calm.” While this can be identifiable simply by eye, if it’s something that you struggle with, know that there is professional help available. Several paint companies offer colour consultancy, including Edward Bulmer Paint, Farrow & Ball, and Lick.

Walls, and more

Paint companies are relevant because the most obvious means of changing the palette of a room is to re-colour the walls – which itself can “heighten the visual effect of your art collection,” says Saskia Blyth of Blyth-Collinson Interiors. However it can feel quite a monumental commitment. “So start with just one wall,” suggests Susan. “Break the rules, do a feature wall if that feels more doable. It’s more comfortable to feel that you can make mistakes that are easily reversible without a lot of effort.” And, she adds, “be prepared to change direction, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right first time. We’ve all painted a room a blue that doesn’t work.” That said, it can take a few days to get used to something. Often the first reaction to a newly coloured room is shock – you need to wait for that shock to abate before you can properly judge if the colour is successful, or not.

Alternatively, suggests Emma, think of adding colour “via woodwork and joinery,” which has impact, but by way of a less large block of colour.

Adding colour to woodwork can be a good place to start

Paul Massey

Introducing second, third (and fourth and fifth!) colours

“Remember there is no such thing as a ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ colour combination,” wrote Dorothy – but that doesn’t stop some of us worrying. A pattern comprising multiple colours can be invaluable, because somebody else has done the thinking already. And worth knowing is that it is preferable to introduce more than one colour, or pattern. “The more you have together, the calmer a room is. If you just have one fabric it’s a bit hotel-y, a bit static,” says Gavin Houghton. Again, start small, and know that stripes can be an excellent foil to florals.

The importance of texture

“Don’t force yourself,” says Susan. Maybe your instinct really is for all-white and colour is not imperative; there are other ways of bringing warmth to a mono-hued interior, most obviously via texture. William Smalley describes the white walls at Kettle’s Yard as “rough plaster, which creates small-scale shadows.” He never does flat painted white walls himself, “instead we work with limewash and plaster.” Rose Uniacke, known as the queen of serene and famous for never introducing a colour just for the sake of it, has used lanterns encased in imperfect antique glass in her own home which, when lit, perform a similar function. And think of fabrics, and of combining linen and bouclé and velvet and silk, that all catch and reflect the light differently, and of using different shades of the same colour. It wasn’t necessarily chromophobia that made the house described by David Batchelor seem so aggressive, but more probably bad decorating.