For centuries, artists and designers have taken inspiration from the natural world. And for anyone in the design field, nature offers an endless supply of colors to incorporate into new projects.
The many flowers of the world offer an especially diverse palette. One of these is the softly-colored, sweet-smelling lilac. Here’s a bit about this versatile color and how to use it.
Lilac in Brief
Lilac is a color named after the shade of the lilac plant (one of 12 plants in the Syringa genus). This small bush is native to parts of Europe and Asia. However, it can be found in temperate gardens in many other areas of the world.
Lilac is often described as a pale shade of violet. But if you look closer, you can see pronounced reddish undertones. You can see the relatively high portion of red in its color values:
If you’ve ever grown lilacs in your own garden, you know that lilac blooms aren’t always the same color. That’s why the standard “lilac” color above is meant to be an approximate average shade.
Is Lilac the Same as Lavender?
Lots of people mistakenly use the terms “lilac” and “lavender” interchangeably (as many do with teal and turquoise). However, they are two distinct colors: lavender is named for the purple flowers of the lavender plant shown above, and lilac is named for the flowers of the lilac plant.
Both lilac and lavender are purplish colors. The real difference is in their undertones. Lavender has bluish undertones, and lilac has pinkish or reddish undertones, as shown below.
As you can see, there are two lavender shades listed above. That’s because the web color called “lavender” doesn’t look like the flowers on lavender plants — or like the color most of us consider “lavender.” It’s closer to being a shade of powder blue with a little hint of purple. The floral shade of lavender more accurately reflects the color of the petals on the lavender plant.
Lilac in History
Lilac is certainly pretty to look at. But like most colors, it only gets more intriguing when you learn about its history. Here’s a quick rundown of lilac through the ages.
It Began With a Bird (Sort Of)
Which came first — lilac the flower or lilac the color? The plant had the name first, but it took a long time for the word “lilac” to be used for a color.
However, the first thing to be called “lilac” after the plant wasn’t a color. It was a bird called the lilac-breasted roller. As you can see in the photo above, the bird is aptly named — its breast is pretty close to the color of lilac flowers.
The first record of the name “lilac-breasted roller” was in 1766. Less than 10 years later, “lilac” would be used as a color name, too.
A Color of Mourning
Lilac is light and cheerful, and it has a pastel-like charm that makes it reminiscent of spring. However, in the Victorian era, it had a much different meaning. By 1775, lilac was considered to be a color — but there was some confusion as to what color it actually denoted. That was understandable, as lilac blooms can be any color from a purplish near-white to a rich, dark purple.
Because lilac as a color wasn’t well-defined, people during the Victorian era (1837-1901) used “lilac” and “lavender” interchangeably. All the various shades of lavender and lilac were part of a curious Victorian custom: the stages of mourning.
After the death of a spouse or close family member, women followed strict fashion guidelines for each of the three stages of mourning. The first was “deep” mourning, when a grieving woman would wear heavy black dresses with all-black accessories.
The next stage was “ordinary” mourning, when women added white trim to their dresses and could begin wearing jewelry again. Lilac was one of the acceptable colors for “light” mourning, the last stage. Women could also wear gray or purple.
The Origin of Purple Dye
Notably, the association of lilac with mourning is a departure from the way various shades of purple have been viewed throughout history. You might be familiar with Tyrian purple, the purple dye first made by the Phoenicians. The dye was made from certain species of sea snails, and it could take as many as 12,000 individual snails to make a single gram of dye.
Because Tyrian purple (the only available purple dye at the time) was so expensive and difficult to produce, only royalty and other people of very high stature were allowed to wear the color purple. Many other civilizations reserved purple for royalty, too. However, Tyrian purple is a lot darker and more saturated than lilac:
That might explain why lilac hasn’t enjoyed the same royal associations as darker, richer shades of purple.
A Mainstay of 1950s Interior Design
When it comes to interior design, the 1950s was a colorful decade. And while cyan and baby pink might be the first shades that come to mind when you think of the 50s, lilac was also a popular choice. It’s still used for interiors today, although it’s not nearly as mainstream as it was then.
The Meaning of Lilac
Every color has a symbolic meaning of some kind. These meanings are somewhat subjective, but in most cases, there are a few generally accepted cultural meanings. For example, in many cultures, yellow is associated with warmth and happiness.
But what about lilac? This color’s meaning is essentially a mixture of the meanings of pink and purple. Here’s a brief overview of some of lilac’s main associations.
Lilac is a gentle, balanced color. It’s soothing and uplifting, much like a friend who consoles you on a bad day. It’s pale but not quite a pastel, and its general softness is reminiscent of a kind, sensitive personality.
Shades of soft pink are often associated with youthfulness (and even immaturity). Lilac is similar to pink, so it easily conjures some of the same associations. It’s no wonder this color would be right at home in a baby’s room!
Lilac is an empathetic color, so it of course makes you think of someone willing to lend a helping hand. Or more specifically, of a person who lends a helping hand but doesn’t expect or want attention for it.
If you stare right at lilac and focus only on the color, how do you feel? Chances are good that you said you felt calm or peaceful. Even though lilac leans somewhat warm, it’s an incredibly soothing, relaxing shade.
Shades of Lilac: Example Color Codes
You saw above that the “standard” shade of lilac is essentially an average of the possible colors of lilac flowers. So naturally, there are several possible shades of lilac to choose from.
1. Pale Lilac
Somewhat confusingly, this color is also known as pale lavender. It’s cooler than your standard lilac, but if you’re at all familiar with lilac blooms, you know that some lilac blooms really are this pale (and this bluish).
In the ISCC-NBS System of Color Designation, it’s simply known as “lilac.” This particular color system was established in 1930 in an attempt to standardize color names — at least to an extent. It was developed as a joint effort between the Inter-Society Color Council (ISCC) and the National Bureau of Standards (NBS).
2. Blue Lilac
This color is essentially lilac — just darker and with more blue undertones. It’s dark and bluish enough that it looks more like lavender than lilac. That said, there are some lilac plants with flowers that are this color or close to it.
3. Deep Lilac
This energetic shade of purple is darker and more saturated than lilac. As you can see in the CMYK values, it contains much more magenta than lilac. It’s vivid enough that it looks a bit like orchid or a toned-down electric purple.
4. French Lilac
The name might make it sound fancy, but French lilac is essentially a slightly dusty medium purple. It looks like a darker, cooler lilac.
You might think that the name itself was a recent invention. After all, paint manufacturers and other color professionals are constantly creating new and exciting color names to draw in more customers. However, French lilac was first recorded as a color name in 1814.
5. Bright Lilac/Crayola Lilac
The colors of Crayola crayons don’t always match up to outside color standards. For example, this color is known as “bright lilac,” but Crayola makes an identically colored crayon called “lilac.” This crayon isn’t one of Crayola’s major players — it was first introduced in 1994 as one of the brand’s scented crayons.
How Does Lilac Compare to Other Floral-Inspired Shades?
You saw above that lilac and lavender, while both being floral shades, are not the same color. So how does lilac stack up against other floral colors? Here are a few to consider.
1. Light Violet vs. Lilac
Light violet is proof that a color doesn’t have to be warm to be high-energy. This shade is both very light and highly saturated, so it makes more of a statement than the quieter, more demure lilac.
2. Purple Lisianthus vs. Lilac
Lisianthus flowers are strikingly rose-like, and they come in a range of colors. Some are pale and delicate, and others are richer and darker. Some even feature high-contrast patterns (like splashes of purple on white petals). The color shown here looks more blue than purple, but some lisianthus flowers are approximately this shade.
3. Orchid vs. Lilac
Orchid is a shade that looks nothing like lilac. But if you’re creating a floral-inspired design, you might be interested in using these two colors together. Throw in a cooler-leaning shade (like lavender) for balance, and you’ll have a memorable floral bouquet!
4. Lotus Pink vs. Lilac
Lotus pink looks a bit like a redder, more saturated version of lilac. You can easily see the difference in its color values. Lotus pink has much more magenta than lilac. If you like lilac but need a color that’s a bit more energetic, this one is a good choice.
5. Dusty Rose vs. Lilac
Lilac was popular in the world of 1950s interior design, but dusty rose was a mainstay of the 1990s. When you see these two side by side, you might notice they’re more similar than you thought. Both have a slightly “dusty” quality. But as you might expect, dusty rose is warmer and redder. It even has a faintly peachy appearance.
What Colors Pair Well With Lilac?
Whether you’re creating a digital design, planning an interior, or just trying to spruce up your living room, lilac is worth considering. But have you thought about what colors to pair with lilac? If you aren’t sure how to choose, check out these five possibilities.
1. Charcoal Gray
Hex Codes: #36454F, #D5C6E0, #A3B18A
Charcoal is a deep, wonderfully timeless shade of gray. If you need a color that will ground your design while also creating a high-contrast backdrop for lilac, it’s definitely one to consider.
Charcoal also balances out lilac on a more subtle level. Lilac’s reddish undertones make it a warm-leaning color. Charcoal gray is a cooler shade with more blue undertones, so together, the two create a beautiful balance.
Hex Codes: #FFFFF0, #B493B3, #84899A
Because it has a slightly muted quality, lilac works well in vintage-inspired designs. If you’re trying to cultivate a warm, vintage vibe, you’ll probably want to avoid stark or cool-leaning whites. Ivory is warm without being too warm, so it’s the ideal pale neutral to combine with lilac.
This color pairing manages to be cozy without being suffocating, so it’s a nice choice for an interior. For example, let’s say you’re designing a living room. If you start with ivory furniture and walls of a slightly different ivory shade, you’ll have the beginnings of a great monochromatic palette.
But a multilayered ivory color scheme can get a little dull. Even adding a few lilac accents can build some interest. For a little extra sparkle, try adding some pewter or silver accents, too!
Hex Codes: #008080, #AE94B3, #F9F7F1
This combination might remind you of an iconic 1990s design: the teal and purple paper cup that seemed to be everywhere. Depending on the look you’re going for, that could be a great thing — or it could be a not-so-great thing.
If you’re set on using teal and lilac together but don’t want to evoke a burst of 90s nostalgia, the trick is to keep these two colors separated by a pale neutral base. For example, if you were designing an interior, you might consider sprinkling a few hints of teal and lilac throughout a room that is otherwise gray.
Hex Codes: #9CAF88, #C2A9C6, #817E8B
Sage green is one of those colors that’s equally at home in vintage or modern palettes. It works nicely with floral shades like lilac, lavender, and rose. The obvious example is creating a design with sage foliage and lilac-petaled flowers, but that’s not the only way you can make these colors work well together.
You might already know that sage, while not technically a neutral, can function very much like one. But many in the interior design field also believe that lilac can work like a neutral as well.
You can absolutely put sage and lilac together in a design. However, in most cases, a project will look more balanced when you choose one of these two to act as a “neutral.” For example, imagine you’re creating a design that shows 3D cubes against a single-color backdrop. Your design will likely look best if you place lilac cubes against a washed-out sage background (or flip the colors and place sage cubes against a washed-out lilac background).
Hex Codes: #FFCDA2, #C3ACCE, #565554
You know that pastel colors work beautifully together — whether you’re colorblocking, designing elaborate patterns, or creating swirling, watercolor-style color schemes. However, you rarely see peach and lilac being used together.
Despite that fact, the two work beautifully together. Don’t be afraid to use this unconventional pairing in unconventional ways. For instance, if you’re creating a gradient-style design, you might not immediately think of blending peach into purplish colors like lilac. But this type of blend can be truly striking — check out the example below!
How Do You Successfully Use Lilac in a Design?
Looking for a versatile color to include in your next design? Lilac is a great choice. Whether you’re using it as the main color for a design or just want to incorporate it as an accent color, lilac can be worked into designs of almost any style. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Try Just a Hint
You don’t have to use a lot of lilac for it to make a statement. Depending on the other colors you’re using in a design, lilac can serve as a focal point.
For example, let’s say you’re creating an abstract design with geometric gray shapes. A design like this can certainly be engaging, but it has no focal point. This is fine in some cases (like if you’re designing a background). But if you want to create a focal point, try placing a single lilac-colored shape at the center.
If you’re designing an interior, a similar strategy can add some life to a mostly neutral palette. For example, if you have a living room made of various shades of gray, throwing in some lilac accent pillows or a wall hanging can help add some interest.
Keep It Soft and Dreamy
The above examples mentioned using lilac in high-contrast designs. However, if you want a quieter look, you can try pairing lilac with softer colors. For example, if you want to create a vintage-inspired interior, try pairing lilac with various shades of cream. This look is especially striking in a kitchen. Try lilac walls, cream-colored cabinets, and pink quartz countertops.
If you want even less contrast, you might try using lilac in watercolor-style designs along with lavender and other shades of purple and pink. It’s a look that’s reminiscent of a pink sunset!
Use It as a Neutral
Lilac isn’t technically a neutral. However, much like sage green and ash blue, it’s subdued enough that you can get away with using it as a neutral — as long as it’s somewhat diluted. You might use it as a wall color for interiors or a background color for digital designs.
However, many designs include more than one neutral. For a strong warm/cool balance, try layering it with taupe or another neutral shade that leans cooler.
How Will Lilac Transform Your Next Design?
Some colors are hard to incorporate in most designs. Fortunately, lilac isn’t one of them. It’s a shade that does well with warm colors, cool colors, and neutrals alike — and you can even (kind of) use it as a neutral. If you’re ready to add some life to your designs, get started with lilac today!