LowHigh_main.jpg

Low Key Palette.

High Key Palette.

A gradient of 4 room sets with wall colours extracted from the blue key scale, showing that the atmosphere of a room completely changes when moving from a high key tint to a low key shade.

A small room, such as a children’s bedroom, can use pale high key green to create the illusion of space and light.

An accent wall in a deep, low key colour can draw the eye away from the less appealing elements in a multipurpose space, such as an open kitchen

LowHigh_main.jpg
Showcase 30 Jun 2015

Design Solutions: Low Key & High Key Colour

Colour expert Kate Smith talks about the low key and high key aspects of colour.

Every design project is a balancing act. Designers must manage an array of elements —composition, colour, lighting, function, shape, and texture — in order to create a cohesive, compelling space. Whether you’re tackling a small scale room remodel or you’re designing a grand outdoor space, one of the biggest challenges both professional and amateur designers face is pulling all the elements together in a way that feels complete and creates an appropriate atmosphere. 

Colour is frequently a hard-to-manage element, as its very nature resists accurate description, and its perception varies from person to person. Understanding a little colour theory can help designers make the transition from adequate to outstanding, and mastering the use of high key and low key colour is one of the best ways to get started. 

High key colour describes the set of colours that range from mid-tone hues to white, while low key colour spans the range from mid-tone to black. In general, the high key range provides upbeat options, while low key colours provide more dramatic tones. The role these colours play in a project is a major factor in the atmosphere that’s created because colour elicits emotion — helps to play up the feeling that a designer wants to evoke in a given space. Although colour is only one of the design elements used to create feeling or mood in a design, it’s one that can create the framework around which other elements can be employed. Establishing the mood or tone of a space should be one of the very first steps in the design process, as it’s related to function and guides many of the decisions that have to be made, beginning with the colour palette. Colour precision is frequently the single element that is at fault in spaces whose moods are just slightly off — rooms that almost work, but don’t quite. Discussions with clients about mood and high key or low key colour should often happen early in the design process, as they’re fundamental to getting a project right, right from the start. 

So how does a discussion about high key or low key colour work? Let’s play with some examples.

We’ll start with some colour theory everyone understands — we think of blue and other cool colours as calming. We tend to associate cool colours with tranquillity and peace, so designers frequently use blues and greens when they’re creating a calm space. Seaglass tones — softened, worn green and lavender, along with greyed, low chroma blues are the classic palette used to evoke serenity. 

A gradient of 4 room sets with wall colours extracted from the blue key scale, showing that the atmosphere of a room completely changes when moving from a high key tint to a low key shade.

Like all colours, though, blue isn’t a single shade. Possibilities are endless — from high  key, pale blues all the way along the continuum  to deep, low key shades. High key turquoise can create a cheerful, bright space, while deep, saturated navy blue can evoke a dramatic atmosphere, particularly when it’s paired with other deep tone, low key colours or contrasted with neutral colours. 

Conversely, we think of warm colours — reds, yellow, and oranges — as sunny, dramatic shades. Using low key, deep gold and crimson can be dramatic, but a designer can create less stimulating spaces with higher toned, paler versions of warm colours. Particularly by using tones with little contrast, along with neutral shades, the impact and emotion of a warmer palette can be toned down.

Unusual Spaces

Designers don’t always have the luxury of working in ideal spaces. We frequently have to manage limitations like an abundance or shortage of natural light. We might be faced with quirky room sizes or shapes. We may have to create a cohesive mood in a space that’s used for multiple purposes. The deliberate use of high and low key colour can be the key to making a difficult project work. A room that typically bakes in the summer sun is the perfect spot to use a high key cool palette to mitigate the warm atmosphere. A kitchen that doubles as an office could be overwhelmed by desk clutter and cooking paraphernalia, but an accent wall in a deep, low key colour can draw the eye away from the less appealing elements in a space. Dark spaces — particularly ones with low ceilings  — benefit from bright, high key shades that create the illusion of space and light. 

Whether you’re looking to create a particular mood, tie together multiple spaces with a cohesive palette, or solve a sticky design problem, playing with high key and low key colours can help bring balance to your design project. You may opt to flout the rules, using colours in an unexpected way for an edgy, unique atmosphere, or you may opt for a more traditional, classic approach, but understanding how high key and low key colours work lets you make your choices skillfully.

A small room, such as a children’s bedroom, can use pale high key green to create the illusion of space and light.

An accent wall in a deep, low key colour can draw the eye away from the less appealing elements in a multipurpose space, such as an open kitchen

President and Chief Color Maven of Sensational Color, Kate Smith is an internationally renowned colour expert, sought out for her ability to guide businesses on how to use colour to gain recognition and generate revenue. www.sensationcolor.com