What Are Square Color Schemes and How Do You Use Square Color Palettes?

Illustration of square color wheel

Color schemes are an important part of interior decorating and design. But did you know there is an actual science to creating color schemes? Graphic designers and decorators don’t just randomly pick colors they think will look good together in a particular space. Rather, they rely on a number of artistically developed color schemes generally accepted as industry standards. One such scheme is the square color scheme.

The square color scheme is so named because of the shape it creates on the color wheel. This post will explain more about the color wheel, how the square color scheme is developed from it, and how you can decorate and design effectively by utilizing a square palette. Needless to say that your color choices for any home decorating project or design are almost limitless.

The Standard Color Wheel

Two color wheels with 12 colors and gradation effect

What designers refer to as the color wheel is a tool originally developed by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century. It is a tool used to mix and match colors so that any scheme built from it will look good. Though there are many variations of the color wheel, a standard wheel is divided into 12 sections. Those sections include:

3 Primary colors: Red, Yellow and Blue.

3 Secondary colors: Green, Orange and Purple.
They consist of two primary colors mixed together.

6 Tertiary colors: Yellow-Orange, Blue-Violet, Red-Orange, Blue-Green, Red-Violet and Yellow-Green.
They are achieved by mixing one primary and one secondary color.

Color Properties

It’s also important to understand the variations of each color on the color wheel. There are four terms here:

  • Hue – A hue is one of the 12 basic colors on the color wheel.
  • Tint – A tint is achieved by adding white to a hue.
  • Shade – A shade is achieved by adding black to a hue.
  • Tone – A tone is achieved by adding gray to a hue.

Tints, shades and tones are represented on the color wheel at various positions, beginning on the outer edge and moving toward the center. Variations will get lighter or darker as you move closer to the center, depending on which color wheel you are looking at. Experimenting with various positions on the wheel gives you the many tints, shades and tones that decorators and designers work with.

The Square Color Scheme

Color wheel with four dots illustrating the square color scheme

Color schemes are chosen based on wheel position. A square color scheme is based on the principle of choosing colors that are evenly spaced on the wheel. Imagine having a paper copy of the color wheel in front of you. Creating a color square would be simple.

Choose your favorite color to start with. Place a dot on that color. Now count three colors clockwise and place another dot. Do that two more times and you will end up with four dots. Now draw a line connecting each of the dots and you’ll have a square. This is the square color scheme.

If you start with red as your favorite color, the other three colors in your scheme would be yellow-orange, green and blue-violet. Most designers would choose one of those four colors to be the dominant color. The other three would be utilized to various degrees as accenting colors.

Decorating With a Square Color Scheme

Painter with overalls and wall painted in square colors red, green, yellow-orange and blue-violet

You might find it fairly easy to use the color wheel to come up with an attractive square color palette. Now you have to figure out how to decorate or design with it. The good news is that square palettes can be used in lots of different ways. There are no hard and fast rules.

One suggestion is to start with a pattern. For example, you may have a favorite throw rug you’re not willing to part with. Given how much visual attention a typical throw rug demands, you can use it as the foundation of your color choices.

What is the dominant color in the rug? To what proportion are the other colors in your palette utilized? Going back to the previous example, blue-violet might be the most prominent color in your rug. White is also fairly prevalent with little splashes of red, green and yellow-orange. The rug determines how you will use your square color scheme.

Here are a few more suggestions:

1. Start With Dark

The four colors you choose for your square palette will come in a variety of shades, tints, and tones. Make your dominant color the darkest, then go lighter from there. Your darkest colors should be closest to the floor. The lightest colors closest to the ceiling. This type of design works well in large rooms with vaulted ceilings.

2. The Formal Look

You can create a formal look by choosing a darker shade for your dominant color and using it on the walls first. Make upholstered furnishings the same color. Then choose a lighter tint for the floor. Finally, accent with lighter tints of your three complementary colors.

3. Combine With Black

A more modern use of the square color scheme is to combine it with black. In this case, black becomes the dominant color. The four colors in your square palette are utilized as accent colors. Combining with black offers a modern look that works very well for updated kitchens and bedrooms.

4. Combine With White

The other side of the combine-with-black coin is combining your square color scheme with white. Here, white becomes the dominant color. The four colors in your square are used to various degrees to give the room some pop. This is one way to dress up a smaller room while maximizing the benefits of white to make the room look bigger.

5. The 60-30-10 Rule

The pros sometimes decorate using the 60-30-10 rule. This rule stipulates that 60% of the color in a given space will be your dominant color. This suggests that your walls will be that color. A secondary color will make up 30% while the remaining 10% are the other two colors in your scheme.

Choose Warm or Cool

Pool with warm yellow colored float ring and cool blue water

The previous example of red, blue-violet, green and yellow-orange presents a conundrum: you have both warm and cool colors working together. Some pros recommend choosing either warm or cool to dominate the space. Choosing cool would mean giving more preference to blue-violet and green. Then accent with red and yellow-orange.

As a side note, it is a good idea to be careful about the balance between warm and cool. A red, yellow-orange, green and blue-violet scheme offers quite a bit of contrast. Equally balancing all of the colors would have a tendency to make the space look more festive and alive than relaxing and reserved.

Shift your square one or several positions on the color wheel and you end up with another square color palette with four different colors. You may find less contrast in these four colors. In such a case, it should be easier to strike a balance regardless of your choice of dominant color.

Limit Your Accent Colors

Rainbow colored face with focused eyes

Square color schemes have a tendency to become visually confusing. This is why designers appreciate the 60-30-10 rule. By choosing one dominant color to take up 60% of the space, you give the eyes something to focus on. Your 30% secondary color provides the necessary complement while your two remaining colors exist as a splash here and the spritz there.

You can limit your two accent colors by bringing them into the space via your decorations. Let’s say you are working in the living room. Your dominant color is blue-violet while your complementing color is yellow-orange. These two colors should make up the bulk of the color for the walls, window treatments, furnishings, etc.

The two accenting colors can be brought in with throw pillows on the couch and perhaps a blanket. You might also bring them in with paintings, picture frames, vases, and even your lamps. The idea is to bring just enough of these two colors into the space to complete the square palette without creating visual confusion.

Muted Tones Can Look Good

Four colored rings using a square color palette in muted tones

Perhaps you appreciate the concept of the square color scheme but the thought of too much contrast frightens you. No worries. Muted tones can create a very nice look that doesn’t stun. At the same time, you don’t have to give up the variety the square palette brings to the table.

Remember that tones are achieved by adding gray to a hue. Thus, tones mute your colors quite effectively. Think of muting as a combination of increasing brightness but decreasing contrast. A muted red still looks red, it’s just not as bold and daring.

Muted tones can make a big difference if your square palette starts with one of the primary colors. You don’t notice as much with tertiary colors, but muted tones still work for them as well. Note that muted tones work well when combined with either black or white.

Working With Tertiary Colors

Six tertiary colors in wheel arrangement

One last thing to consider with the square color scheme is working with tertiary colors. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to start with either a primary or secondary color. You also don’t have to start with a pure hue.

There are plenty of tertiary colors that escape definition when you choose certain tints, shades, or hues. You might start with a tone of blue that looks different depending on the amount of light in the room. When the room is brightly illuminated by sunshine, the color looks more like a silvery gray. You don’t begin to see the blue come out until the sunshine fades.

Working with these sorts of colors gives you an entirely new opportunity for artistry. You can create spaces that change appearance with time of day, the change of seasons, and so forth. It’s all about finding the right position on the color wheel and then choosing your tints, shades and tones somewhere on that middle ground that defies easy definition.

Start With the Color Wheel

Summarizing what has been discussed in this post goes back to the color wheel. This is where it all starts. If you are new to design, learn all you can about the color wheel and the many color schemes derived from it. An understanding of the color wheel will prepare you to make future design choices.

Remember that the square color palette begins with a single color on the wheel. Every third color is added to the first choice to create a square palette. From there you choose a dominant color and the complementing color, with the other two colors acting as accents.