Decorating Your Home With Earth Tones, Part 1

Create harmonious schemes based on the ancient tints of minerals, rock, and soil– the colors of the earth are part of our natural environment and make a perfect background to everyday living.

The restful tones of earth colors are derived from naturally occurring pigments in the ground -varying types of soil, minerals, and rock are part of the earth’s structure and their colors vary in shade and intensity. These chestnut browns, terra cottas, and ocher yellows all belong in the same tonal range, however, and so have an in-built harmony which means they blend well together.

Brown is central to the range, firstly as a pure color in its own right, and then as creator of an enormous diversity of subtle hues, tinged with shades of red, yellow, or green – brick red, burnt orange, mustard brown, and khaki all fit into the picture. Add to this all the delicate shades of beige and cream created by mixing in lime or chalk, and the shadowy tones of soot and charcoal, and the strength and usefulness of this color group become clear. These are hues that have formed the basic palette of life for every culture of the world, and were used for sophisticated Roman tempera murals, Aboriginal war paint, and Celtic pottery.

In character, rooms that are decorated with earth tones have a gentle, welcoming feel and a sense of timelessness. These are colors that our eyes recognize as familiar friends, even though they are often – because of their muddy, blended origin – very hard to define. They are as far from the pure, clear primary colors as you can get, and have their origins rooted well back before synthetic dyeing processes made bright, dazzling colors generally available.

For inspiration, look at old Afghan rugs glowing with soft ochers, rusty red, and pinky beige; take a trip to a local museum to soak up color ideas from primitive terra-cotta pots, ancient mineral glazes and glass; and plunder your library for books on African tribal decoration and Aboriginal finger paintings for rich contrasts in burnt umber, earthy pink, and slate.

Cool Earth Tones This is the range of tones achieved by mixing white, or pigments from the cool side of the spectrum such as blue and green, with the basic earth colors. Think of cool stone and slate floors, or the washed creams, gray, and pale sand of a seashore on a winter morning, to get the feel of the colors. They create a soothing but elegant ambience of natural beauty.

Beige, putty, cream, and parchment all make perfect background settings, so the range of paints and papers that falls into this category is enormous. If you choose to paint rather than wallpaper, a number of translucent washes of different colors from this range will give a more natural finish than a flat latex; in earlier times these colors were full of natural impurities and so had interesting variations of shade and depth. You can either continue the same tones throughout the room, or use the walls as a canvas against which to set a richer series of colors.

If you’re using this palette alone, it’s important to avoid bland, featureless expanses. Texture, pattern, and detail are vital factors and occur naturally in many of the items that you may choose to include in this type of scheme. For rustic earthy textures, use greeny gold rush matting, jute webbing, rough sandstone, and textured weave linens and cottons. Stone busts and urns, limed wood, or reclaimed bleached pine furniture all give character and interest.

You can also add interest with strong patterns which don’t tend to dominate because the colors are so muted. Look for bold ethnic designs for fabrics and wall hangings, or densely patterned floral or leafy wallpapers in pale olive, straw and mushroom tones. Important details will count for more in this subtle setting – bone buttons, steely gray upholstery studs, a rough twist of raffia around a recycled glass jar all reinforce the picture but break up the sheer planes of color.

2009, Rhonda Morin.

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