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Color and Wood Tone: How to Choose Colors That Go Together

Color and Wood Tone: How to Choose Colors That Go Together
© Heidi Caillier Design


Whether your furnishings are Mission-style oak, country pine, or high-style mahogany, the beauty of the wood deserves a background that shows it to best advantage. The question, however, is not really what color goes with oak or mahogany, but rather, what color will best enhance your wood's finish.


Don't Get Too Matchy-Matchy


Develop a natural, evolved look in your home with items that go together comfortably but do not match exactly. Each type of wood has a characteristic color and grain pattern, and the color also can be altered with stain. Furniture makers have used stains and varnishes for centuries, both to enhance the appearance of the grain and to change the color of the wood. The stains sold at home improvement centers are generally named for the types of wood they simulate: Maple, cherry, walnut, mahogany, ebony, oak, and fruitwood are the most common types.

Over time, wood furnishings acquire a rich patina that gives the surface depth and complexity. Newer woods and veneers may lack this complexity, but they still have an overall color tone that may be yellow, orange, red-brown, bluish brown, or dark brown.

To choose wall colors or fabrics that will enhance your wood pieces, consider the dominant hues in the finish. Also consider whether you prefer the drama of high contrast or the richness of low-contrast pairings. Don't worry about all the wood pieces in a room matching -- the casual, comfortable, gathered-over-time look of mixed woods is perfectly appropriate today.


Use Contrast to Call Attention


Dark finishes, such as mahogany, walnut, or cherry, stand out in sharp relief against any light color, whether it's a tint of green or blue or a hue from the sunny side of the color wheel. In the same way, light wood shows up boldly against dark or strong color on the walls.

The contrast calls more attention to the furniture, a plus if you have a fine piece you want to focus on. If you have a lot of dark furniture in a light-color room, however, the space may feel busier than it would if the furniture blended in. If you love the look of dark wood against light walls (or light furniture against dark walls), keep furniture arrangements orderly and streamlined to offset the impression of crowding.

To achieve high contrast with medium-tone finishes, keep the wall color soft and light, creating as much difference as possible between the values of the wood color and the wall.

You can also use the colors in the furniture finish as a cue for wall colors. If the dominant color in the wood appears to be red, then a green background will enhance and intensify the wood's hue.

Golden-yellow woods look handsome against warm red as well as earthy greens, teal, or eggplant. Brown woods with yellow undertones relate to buttery walls yet stand out boldly for high-contrast drama.

Antique woods, which have a patina that offers depth and complexity, may combine several tones -- that's why they can look good against a variety of light or dark colors.


Make a Subtle Statement


Pairing hues of equal intensity or value creates low contrast. This doesn't mean the furniture fades into the background, however.

When you put a dark mahogany chest or ebony table against a deep red or blue-green wall, you create a dynamic balance between two hues of equal strength. The value of the wood color equals that of the wall.

The same principle works with medium brown woods and muted or medium-tone colors; the effect is more restrained because the tones are subdued.

Warm neutrals, such as taupe, mushroom, or khaki, bring out the rich, toasty notes in medium brown woods. The furniture shows up handsomely, but the effect is quiet and low-key, producing a different kind of drama from that created by high contrast.


Consider Your Furniture Choices

Color and Wood Tone: How to Choose Colors That Go Together

Color preferences are entirely personal, but when you're choosing background colors for furniture, you may find that some do a better job than others of bringing out the natural beauty of wood. Consider these wood and color combinations:

  • The warmth of honey-toned pine wood shows up well against a medium green. This green brings out the yellow tones in the wood and balances them with cool contrast.
  • A clear minty green could seem a little gaudy, but a pale gray-green is an attractive, low-key choice.
  • Intense, bright blue brings out the wood's orange tones, but you have to love high contrast to live with this much bold color; the contrast could seem harsh.
  • Terra-cotta or pale orange draws out the orange in the wood but is so similar in tone that the wood is nearly lost.
  • Yellow brings out the wood's orange and yellow tones and emphasizes an overall warmth, but it doesn't enhance the wood.

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