From Creamy Pastels to Luscious Greens: The Color Palettes of Inner Life

From Creamy Pastels to Luscious Greens: The Color Palettes of Inner Life

Let’s look at how color can bolster your resolve, calm your mind, and exorcise those nagging thoughts weighing on our shoulders.

After almost an entire year of turmoil, in which disease, politics, and climate have dominated our minds for so long, it’d be easy to fall into thinking that this is the new normal, that somehow we’re now trapped in an ever more hostile world.

Well, that will not do. Despite everything that we’ve endured of late, the determination of the human spirit to meet this moment cannot be underestimated. Though we’re often our own worst enemy, society—and the planet—may just be beginning to heal.

And with that comes the desire to help with that healing process. Thoughts, activities, and emotions all play a part. As designers, we often use color to evoke and influence various emotions and feelings. So, today we’ll be looking at how something as simple as color can steady your resolve, calm your mind, and exorcise those negative thoughts that have been hanging around in our minds for long enough.

Colors of the Year

Recently, Pantone released not one, but two Colors of the Year for 2021: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. Their reason for these choices was pretty clear:

The union on an enduring Ultimate Gray with the vibrant yellow Illuminating expresses a message of positivity supported by fortitude. Practical and rock solid but, at the same time, warming and optimistic, this is a color combination that gives us resilience and hope. We need to feel encouraged and uplifted—this is essential to the human spirit.

Leatrice Eiseman—Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute

Pantone Colors of the YearPantone’s Colors of the Year 2021: PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray + PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating.

Although calming and soothing as individual color choices, in combination, their power becomes yet stronger. You could even say that it’s a metaphor for the notion that our differences are complementary, not adversarial.

Pablo Picasso once said that: “…colors follow the changes of the emotions,” meaning the way we interpret our surroundings are, to some degree, influenced by the color—and combinations of colors—that we perceive. On a basic level, it’s why interior designers discourage red as a color for bedroom walls, as opposed to blues, greens, or whites. The former invigorates the mind, which is the last thing you need when trying to sleep. The latter, however, all coax, soothe, and alleviate tension.

A Bit of Theory

Before we jump into some standout color combinations that will help to massage your mind, it’s worth knowing why certain color combinations have this power and why others do not. The ones we’re interested in today tend to fall into two typical combinations: analogous and complementary.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are those that sit closely together on the color spectrum, and often form part of the same broad color range. For example, red, orange, and yellow all sit closely together and are therefore considered analogous.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are those that sit opposite each other on the color spectrum, and, as the name suggests, complement each other as a logical family of colors.

One thing to bear in mind: no colors, no matter how analogous or complementary, will feel particularly soothing if the contrast is cranked up to the max. Muted and pastel shades are your friends here. Vibrancy is fine, but ensure it’s not the dominating feature of any colors you use. Otherwise you may find the results a little overwhelming.

Calming and Relaxing

When we’re stressed, our minds subconsciously seek out blue tones to assuage our feelings. It’s partly why being in nature is a perfect way to attenuate anxiety—even the simple thought of looking up to the sky or out to sea has a feeling of deep rejuvenation.

Calming Color of BlueBlue has a natural capacity to evoke calm. Image via

Soothing for the Mind

The touch of morning sun on your skin as it peeks from behind a cloud is one of those feelings that instantly soothes. Or, that feeling as you get off a plane and walk into a new, warm climate. The sense of warmth obviously comes from heat sources. But, even if you’re not able to seek out the sun right now, color can, to a certain degree, evoke that same sense of soothing warmth.

Tan colors are a nice place to start, as well as (no big surprise) colors associated with the sun such as burnt oranges, subtle yellows, and pleasing champagne tones.

Warming TonesTan and warming tones fill the mind with warmth and a sense of reassurance. Image via Igisheva Maria.

Positivity for the Future

Violets and pinks may not be your first choice for invoking a slice of tranquility. But, so long as they’re implemented in softer, pastel shades, they can lead to feelings of both euphoria and optimism. With violets, you want to keep it light, moving closer to the white end of the available options rather than the black, as that may feel a little foreboding. With pinks, think strawberry blond or baby pink rather than acid pink.

Combining PastelsPink or violet in combination with blue and orange translates as positivity, vitality, and optimism. Image via insta_photos.

Getting Back to Nature

Woodlands, fields, parks, forests—their health benefits are well known. So, it stands to reason that green and earth tones are going to make us feel buoyant. In a time when the outdoors have been somewhat restricted due to the pandemic, our pining for the wilderness can be harnessed with a splash of green to bring harmony to our thoughts. Almost any shade of green will work well, but lighter tints are probably going to have more power than their darker counterparts, especially those on the turquoise and tidal end of the spectrum. Again, their link back to blue and its soothing capabilities is no coincidence.

Getting Back to NatureBeing one with nature is more than just a phrase. All that greenery actually brings harmony to our thoughts. Image via PhotoStockPhoto.

Cleansing Thoughts

White has long been known to have a pure, distilled feeling. However, getting white right can often be a challenge. Too dark, and it can feel a little depressing, much like an overcast day. But too piercing, and it can feel incredibly stark and clinical, which given our perspective on disease right now, is the last thing you want to be thinking about.

If you’re going for a white, the best idea is to stick to creamier choices, as these will have the calming effect you’re looking for. Or, though it may not be your immediate thought, gray tones also work well as another neutral alternative, which (of course) brings us back to Pantone’s Colors of the Year.

Creamy Whites and GraysCreamy whites and subtle grays give a real sense of purity and cleanliness. Image via Jacob Lund.

It’s easy to think of color as something that just happens—plants are green, the sky is blue, and our minds are red with anger. However, with some thought and understanding of how we can arrange colors, we can harness their power to bring a certain, and much needed, inner peace to our thoughts once more. 2020 might have been a bit of a ride, and not one that many of us want to be repeating any time soon. But here we are at the start of a whole new year, ready to calmly, hopefully, and optimistically do it all again, with an entire toolkit of color combos that can set us up for the right frame of mind.

Cover image via AC Manley.

Discover additional aspiring color combos with these refreshing articles:

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