What Is a Monochromatic Color Scheme?

Gray and white monochromatic living room and kitchen

The Spruce / Christopher Lee Foto

Picking the colors for your interior design project can be overwhelming. Anyone who has taken a trip to a local home improvement store or paint retailer can attest to the fact that the options are seemingly endless when it comes to color. Who would blame you for wishing there was a way to make choosing colors a little simpler?

In fact, we may be able to offer the perfect solution: design your room around a monochromatic color palette. Doing so is an incredibly simple way to bring a touch of elegance to your interiors.

What Is a Monochromatic Color Scheme?

A monochromatic color scheme means that a single base color forms the foundation of the room's color design. Though various shades and tones of that color can accent the space, there are no other colors present. Many rooms in old European castles (and even in the White House) have monochromatic color schemes.

Scientific definitions are complicated and deal with concepts like radiation wavelength, but for practical purposes,  

Some purists argue that the initial base color must be one of the official primary, secondary, or tertiary colors, but for practical decorating or design purposes, this doesn't need to be the case, and it rarely is. Essentially, this is a color scheme in which any single hue forms the base of the scheme, with all other colors being derivatives of that hue.

White is usually considered an acceptable (and desirable) color in all monochromatic schemes, since it is essentially the very lightest version of any and all colors. It is very common, for example, to use white trim or white accessories in a room that has any kind of monochromatic scheme. 

Fun Fact

The first floor of the White House features three monochromatic entertaining spaces: The Red Room, The Green Room, and The Blue Room. At a state dinner, guests enjoy refreshments and mingling in these parlors before the grand entrance of the president, first lady, and the visiting head of state.

Create a Monochromatic Color Scheme

Begin by picking a base color. This can be a color you like instinctively; it will be the color that dominates a room decor plan, and may form the principle color on the walls. The next step is to pick lighter and darker variations of that color as options. These variations may be used on accent walls, or trim work, or in accessories or accents within the room. At paint stores, you will find color samples that give a wide selection of color variations built around different base colors. 

Experts recommend picking at least two options off the base color—one lighter, one darker. As is true of any color scheme, you’ll need to determine where and how each variation will be used in the overall design. It's important, though, to make sure your colors are different enough to provide some contrast. Colors that are too close create a muddy, imprecise feeling in your room design. 

Terminology: Shades, Tints, and Tones

As you research and study how to create your color scheme, you'll need to have an understanding of several terms commonly used. Here are the definitions you need to know:

  • Base color: The dominant or main color selected for the color scheme. This is the starting point from which all other color choices are derived.
  • Hue: This refers to one of 12 purest colors from the color wheel – primary, secondary or tertiary. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. The secondary colors are green, orange and purple—each is formed from combinations of the primary colors. The tertiary colors are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green—each is formed by mixing a primary and secondary color. 
  • Shade: This refers to colors resulting when black is added to a color to make darker.
  • Tint: This is the color that results with the addition of white to make it lighter, as in pastel colors. 
  • Tone: A tone results when gray is added to a color to reduce its intensity. Most colors commonly used in room paints are actually tones, not pure colors.

Advantages of a Monochromatic Scheme

Monochromatic color schemes have a number of virtues that make them worth considering in room decor or graphic design. Benefits of monotone color schemes include:

  • One color automatically creates a sense of simplicity and harmony in a space. 
  • Design effort is simplified since concerns about color clashes are eliminated. 
  • It creates a minimalist style that allows objects within a room to take precedence. In a room with precious antiques, for example, a monochromatic scheme will highlight them.
  • Monotone backgrounds allow contrasting elements in a room to be seen.
  • The use of single-color can make a strong, bold impression, especially with an intense or unusual base color.

Breaking the Rules?

Strict adherence to the rules would dictate that all colors be within the monochromatic scheme, with no exceptions. However, a good number of designers who regularly use monochromatic room schemes also like to carefully break the rules.

In some instances, for example, an accent color that strongly contrasts with the basic mono scheme can actually highlight the effectiveness of the overall design. Especially in white or black monochrome designs, the use of a single contrasting color can be very effective. However, make sure to use extra color sparingly and with deliberate intention.