What Is a Monochromatic Color Scheme?

Gray and white monochromatic living room and kitchen

The Spruce / Christopher Lee Foto

Picking colors for an interior design project can be overwhelming. Anyone who has visited a home improvement store or paint retailer can attest that the color options are seemingly endless. But there is an option to make the choice simpler: Design your room around a monochromatic color palette. Doing so is an incredibly easy way to bring a touch of elegance to your interior.

What Is a Monochromatic Color Scheme?

A monochromatic color scheme means a single color forms the foundation of the room's color design. While 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.

Essentially, a monochromatic color scheme is when any single hue forms the base of the scheme, and all other colors are derivatives of that hue. White is usually considered an acceptable (and desirable) color in all monochromatic schemes, as it is essentially the very lightest version of any and all colors. It is common, for example, to use white trim or white accessories in a room that's designed with a 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 and the visiting head of state.

Create a Monochromatic Color Scheme

Begin by picking a base color. It will be the color that dominates the room's decor plan, and it may be 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, on trim, or in accessories and accents within the room. At paint stores, you often will find color samples that give a selection of color variations built around different base colors. 

Experts recommend picking at least two options off the base color—one lighter and 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 to make sure your colors are different enough to provide some contrast. Colors that are too close can create a muddy, imprecise feeling in your room design. 

Terminology: Shades, Tints, and Tones

As you research how to create your color scheme, it's important to have an understanding of several common terms. Here are the definitions you need to know:

  • Base color: This is the dominant or main color selected for the color scheme. It 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 it 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 several virtues that make them worth considering in design. Benefits of monotone color schemes include:

  • One color automatically creates a sense of simplicity and harmony in a space. 
  • Design effort is simplified because 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.
  • It can make a 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, many designers like to carefully break the rules.

In some instances, for example, an accent color that strongly contrasts with the base color 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.