Jenny: Choosing Colors: A Cheat Sheet

I have two different areas in the cottage I’m trying to get old furniture ready for (aka painting and upholstering).  The main floor where people will visit is in cottage colors, rich pastels, blues and yellows with pink accents.  This is so not my kind of color, but it’s going to be relaxing and cosy and most important, it’s going to fit the house.  The ground floor where I’ll be working and doing most of my living (aka dogs, writing, and dropping things on the floor) is just a walk-out basement right now.  The house is on a hill, so the back of the basement is underground, but two thirds of it is above ground with windows and the back is a walk-out with windows all around.  So down there, where nobody but the dogs and I will ever go, I can make whatever color I want.  And I want color.  On the other hand, it’s easy to lose my grip and just splash the stuff everywhere, so I rely on a tried and true cheat: I find a fabric, a pillow, a quilt I love and I pull all the colors from that as my anchor fabric.  For example . . .

Since I was going against all my color instincts with the pastels, I picked a rich cottage floral in blue (my fave) that had other colors in it, too.  Then I pulled fabrics from my stash and stacked them around the floral:



It was clear to me that they all worked except for that blue and white floral on the right; the blue is wrong and the pattern is too deco and bold.  So it goes and the rest are going on Popeye, Swee’Pea, Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and the rest of the upstairs makeover furniture.


But for the downstairs where I could go hogwild, I picked a Cynthia Rowley quilt that I found at T.J.Maxx and loved.  Then I went to my stash and found a lot of colors that were dead on (no surprise, this stuff is what I gravitate to every time):

The quilt’s in the back and there’s a matching throw pillow on the side, also on sale at T.J.Maxx.  Cheap R Us.  Also Cynthia Rowley rocks.

The anchor fabric can come in handy for a lot of decisions.  I have two large pieces of furniture to cover: the couch for upstairs (Wimpy) and a chaise for downstairs (Aziraphale, soon to be joined by Crowley the ancient LaZBoy and Agnes Nutter the ottoman).  I bought a boatload of a blue fabric I love (blue is the only thing that’s going to pull this house together) which I intended for the couch, but when I put it next to the half-finished Popeye, it wasn’t quite . . . right.  So I put it next to both the floral cottage anchor fabric and the Rowley quilt to decide whether it was going to cover the upstairs cottage couch or the downstairs office chaise:

I think the choice is pretty obvious.  Which way would you go?

72 thoughts on “Jenny: Choosing Colors: A Cheat Sheet

  1. Reb says:

    Well, definitely not the floral, which is lovely, by the way.

    But I hate to say this (I really hate to say this) but I wouldn’t pair it with the Rowley either.

    All 3 of them are gorgeous alone, but I don’t think the centre’s colour or pattern quite works with the Rowley. The Rowley quilt looks soft and luxurious and curvy. The centre one looks fine-boned and detailed and a bit sharp.

    They might be completely different in reality, of course, or even on a different computer screen.

  2. Not the floral. I think it will look great on the chaise. Even though it’s different in color and texture and style than the Rowley, I believe it will work. I like eclectic and the color family is represented enough that it will work. I would love to recline on a chaise in that fabric

  3. Diane (TT) says:

    Well, I like contrast, so I was thinking that the crispness of the center fabric would be nice with either softer pattern – but as a small accent (the way there might be a valance of stripes over floral curtains (or a striped petticoat under a floral dress), not as a big thing. The choice may be obvious to you, but I guess I’m missing it!

    So, the downstairs is going to be apocalyptic? Yikes!

  4. If I had to choose I’d say definitely the floral. As Reb says it’s difficult to tell, colours differ from one computer screen to another. The blue center fabric jars against both fabrics. And it’s a different blue to that on the quilt. The colours of the floral fabric are a better match with the quilt.

    Perhaps try fabric number 7 from the top down on the second photo

    So that’s helpful isn’t it… 😉

  5. I completely understand what you are saying about finding fabrics that fit the feel of the house, but don’t get why you would decorate using pastels if you yourself don’t actually like pastels. It’s your house, surely you can find something that both fits your taste AND the house? Perhaps more blue – lots of different shades of blue with pops of other colors like yellows and splashes of red?

    I’m with Reb – I like all the fabrics in the picture on their own, but not sure I like any of them together. If I had to pick one, I’d pick the floral I suppose…

  6. Honestly, this is too much for me. My husband and I are presently trying to reduce everything in the house which means we go with white walls and the wood floors and a lot of empty space and just a little splash of color here and there (we do have a red leather couch in front of the white fireplace) so I guess we’re heading in different directions. I’ll just wait and see how things come along, hoping you’ll go on posting.

    But like it says in that poster I see on a lot of creative blogs: “Keep Calm and Carry On!”

  7. Maybe I read it wrong. Are you saying the left hand quilt is the downstairs anchor fabric and the lovely floral (I want it) fabric is the upstairs anchor, so you’re trying to decide whether to use the middle blue upstairs or down?

    If I’m wrong about your question it’s because I’m not a morning person and I’m up way too early today.

    My aunt used to say there was a smooth way to coordinate colors and a shocking way, and both were equally good. I would say the blue with the quilt is a smooth transition.

    I tend to prefer the more jolting transitions, like the blue with the floral fabric on the right. The blue fabric pulls out the dark blue spray of flowers and would make a nice balance to the floral impact.

    Others probably won’t agree, but I like the blue with the floral.

  8. stephanie says:

    @Becke – I think the Europeans figured this out because they are more awake than we are:)

    Blue is my soul. It truly is, but I gotta tell ya – I’d throw some green in there. I think it would tie together the upstairs, the downstairs and the outside. Personally, I’d pick something sort of bright sage or the color of a true Key Lime pie. Not the stuff you get from a box but the color of a homemade pie.

  9. Rose says:

    That Rowley quilt is gorgeous. I loved all the fabrics in the picture you have for your private part of the house. Why not do the whole house in what you really love? It’s your house. I don’t love the blue floral, though of course I don’t have to love it, it’s your house. But I think the color scheme you’ve picked for the ground floor rocks.

  10. JulieB says:

    Wow. Looking at the small photo, I was leaning towards the downstairs fabric to pair it with. When I zoomed in, I really liked it with the upstairs fabric. In fact, I really love the fabric all on it’s own. Out of the three, which are all pretty cool, that one is my hands-down favorite. So, no help here. But thanks, I learned a lot. I wish you’d come to my house and help me fix my yellow-walls mistake. 😀

  11. JulieB says:

    I wondered the same thing. I get that it is a cottage – but it’s also your house. There are several ways to decorate that still say “cottage,” IMHO.

  12. You’re probably right. I got up at the butt crack of dawn because I was supposed to get my front door replaced today. But it’s rainy and stormy, so they just called to reschedule. And now I’ll be a zombie all day. 🙁

  13. Kieran says:

    I think when you’re not a big fan of pastels but want a cottage-y feel upstairs, piped ivory slipcovers over squashy chairs and sofas paired with pillows in the pastel striped or floral fabrics you have would look awesome. But dog hair will show up!

    I think the fabric in the middle goes great with the Cynthia Rowley.

  14. Julie – Thanks for the suggestion. The gorgeousness of the quilt doesn’t show up all that well in the small picture. I just blew it up to the full size, and now I’m drooling.

    This is making me want to go look at Kaffe Fassett pictures on Pinterest – these colors remind me of his work.

  15. I can see it with the quilt more naturally, but I can also see you putting bits of it here and there upstairs, like subverting the “typical” cottage look toward your own particular style as well. Like spies from below leaving their mark upstairs.

  16. Librarian Betty says:

    I do this sometimes when I’m gardening– plan ahead so compulsively to make sure that everything conforms to some sense of design and order. It not only takes the fun out of it but most often I end up with a bunch of pots sitting around unplanted because I’m so hung up on doing it “right”. I find that when I sort of close my eyes (metaphorically speaking), trust my gut, and start digging, everything ends up where it “belongs” for the most part.

    So, when it comes to color and fabric choices, I think that maybe you’re thinking too hard about the whole thing– that whole left brain, right brain dicotomoy. I find that the more I try to impose some sense of “what goes with what” and “what should go where” the more confusing it all gets. As an artist, you have an inate sense of how it should work– stop thinking and go with it. Instinct will drive you to make the correct decisions for you because, after all, no one else has to like it but you do.

    I think I fell straight into the abyss of assvice here…

  17. German Chocolate Betty says:

    Love the colors. I myself have always tended toward strong jewel colors (ruby, saphire, emerald) and there’s a lot of that buried in your selections.

    For me, it is a matter of the balance between the “busy-ness” of the patterns and the areas of “peace” in a room.

    Like Colognegrrl, our house has basically white walls (one good reason for that is that we are a latitude of over 62 degrees N, which puts us, oh, way up there in Hudson’s Bay somewhere) so our sunlight is weak in the winter, and we need the “brightening” effect. On the second floor (bedrooms) we have strong warm accents — terracotta colored curtains, yellows and terracottas in the bedding, etc. Downstairs more pattern, with lots of oriental carpets on terracotta stone floors, but lots and lots of windows. Lower level melon colored walls, with white tile floors and oriental carpets.

    Our visual “busy-ness” comes not from the patterns of the fabrics (like you have chosen) but from the paintings on the walls. (Everything from oils to watercolors to my handmade lace and stitchery pictures.)

    So, (finally getting to the point here), while the photos look too “busy” for some, it may be because the patterns fill the picture, but will not “fill” the room, i.e., you have your peaceful contrasts in the room, to which the patterns add an interesting counterpoint.

    I couldn’t judge without getting a feeling for the whole picture. So, I’m no help there.

    It’s like my garden — I add perenials each year, but every year I add more and more hostas to the garden, because I like their forms and the fact that they come back better every year and they seem to make the garden interesting. When talking to a pro gardener, he said to me, well, you know, the big leaves of the hostas are peaceful, like the lawn. You know, one reason why people like lawns is because they are un-busy and therefore peaceful to the eye. (So my hostas are actually unintentional zen…)

  18. JulieB says:

    Good points. I live where the winter sun can be weak as well, out west of Chicago, and one of the reasons I went with yellow on the walls was to brighten and warm the house in the winter. But I chose the yellow from a small piece instead of getting one of the test samples, and we hadn’t ripped out the gray carpeting yet (the previous owner had a cold white on the wall and gray carpet everywhere. It was enough to make you beg for a bullet to the by the end of a gray January). So when we painted after putting in wood floors, it wasn’t what I’d expected. And, it’s not me.

    I read somewhere one thing to try is to take cues and colors from native plants in the area. When I paint again – my husband requests we wait until after he dies.. 😀 – I might combine the fabric and native plant thing. Or hire a decorator. 🙂

  19. The most beautiful garden I ever had (I have a black thumb) was one Mollie designed for me when she was a landscape architect. It was all green, different greens, different textures, with one lavender rosebush. It was gorgeous.

    On the pastels:
    It’s a tiny, tiny house and those bright colors would wreck the upstairs. The pastels I’ve picked are really saturated, so they’re light colors but they’re rich. And I’ve already told the guy who’s painting the house that everything is going to be white except the stairs to the attic loft where the steps are going to be blue. So the softer, lighter colors will work just fine there. I don’t want the brighter, super rich jewel tones upstairs; they’re not comforting or welcoming, they’re too in-your-face. But they’re going to be great downstairs which is going to be a rowdier place.

    I did floorplan drawings to scale last week and then measured my furniture, and putting the couch and two chairs in that living room is going to make it crowded, no room for anything else (one couch and one chair is pushing it once you put in tables) so the colors have to be lighter there.

    I knew I shouldn’t have put “obvious” in there. To me, the darker, richer color and the geometric made it obvious that it was going to blend with the downstairs colors and quilt much much better than with the upstairs floral fabric. I’m okay with the stripes with the floral or a dot, but anything more complicated than that is going to be too confusing for me.

  20. German Chocolate Betty says:

    @JulieB: wall color not being what you expected…I always followed a great tip from my mom (we’re from MI, so, Chicago, yeah, I hear you). She said when you find a color (paint chip) that you like, actually order that color but TWO SHADES LIGHTER. Because a wall-ful is much more color than you think.

    What I did in my home in the Detroit-area was this. I went to the paint store and got the chips (strips) of the colors I thought would work. I hung the strips in the room I was going to paint. I looked at them in the morning, then afternoon, then dusk, then with artificial light (night). I did it for a week or two. What you find out is that certain colors begin to “hum” at you. Those that just went “bleh” at me, I took down (did go back and get some more chips to see if there was something better). And only one actually ended up looking good in ALL lighting situations. When I narrowed it down to the color that “sang”, I followed my mom’s advice and got it two shades lighter.

    It turned out mah-velous, if I do say so myself.

  21. German Chocolate Betty says:

    Yes, Japanese gardens are mostly green with only touches of color, instead of beds of colorful flowers. And they are best viewed in rain or mist. (I got lucky when in Kyoto once because I got to see the Royal Gardens in a fine misting rain, which brings out the various shades of green…)

    Peace in your environment is good for the soul. Which, of course, is why we all want to declutter. (Which I have been doing more of again recently.) “Clutter” is sometimes also too many patterns in one place, your eyes just flit and flit and never stand still — and your brain is racing after it.

  22. Oh, it’s all so contextual, isn’t it? I like the center fabric with either one. I particularly like the tone of it with the floral. Downstairs, though, might matter where that quilt would go in relation to the couch. If you’re thinking of draping the quilt over the couch, I’m not sure. The quilt has lovely colors but they appear in blocks and I’m not sure how they balance when the quilt is spread out, or for how it might be folded on the couch. I’d spread out the blue so you get a big swatch to work with and then fold the quilt against it in various combinations that might actually show. In any case, I love the jewel tones and agree that Kaffe Fasset (if you like his style) is dead on for the colors you’re working with.

    I actually find it hard to tell with little bits. I might add, my living room walls are orange and, for the most part, blue is not my color. So really, I have no business commenting but just couldn’t help myself.

  23. I rudely asked you why you chose to wear such muddy colors. [I apologize for that]. You said that jewel tones washed you out. Now I see that you choose to have the jewel tones all around you. They are beautiful.

  24. I love them all because I love color, especially the British way of doing a flowery print chair with a striped sofa or vice versa, and yet in my life I have boring stuff because I can’t do a Brit house in the desert. Next house!

    So, I’m no help to you. : ) Except maybe I’d do the floral with that sage green stripe material toward the bottom. But that’s just me.

  25. I think both fabrics are lovely but not with the quilt. I would go with one of the greens or a bright pink (there is a nice one with a small pattern in one of your stacks). If you have your heart set on one of the 2 in the third photo, then perhaps has some piping or other detail in a vivid green to accent the quilt?

    Good luck! I hope you will show off the finished product.

  26. merrymac says:

    I Love the quilt and the center blue fabric. I think they’re wonderful together. There’s a cottage layout on BHG (Better Homes & Gardens) that focuses on patterns and colors. On the front page of, just hit the “Add Color To Your Living Room” button and then there’s lots of lovely photos. I mention it because of the photo of the small cottage living room, the white walls, and the use of color and pattern. There’s a turquoise sofa, a lime chair, and bold drapes. I thought of you the second I saw it.

  27. Completely with you on the pastels. Very light and bright.

    For me, dark colours block energy and feel oppressive. And in smaller spaces especially, it helps to use one major wall colour theme throughout to create a unified feel (ie: walls one colour, trim another). I like to introduce pattern and richer colours through fabric on curtains, table coverings, throw pillows, etc, that are easy to switch up depending on mood, season, or whatever.

    Got to say, though, your house sounds eerily similar to mine. Mine is built into the side of a cliff, so that my lower level is still high up and overlooks the river & not below grade level at all. No real backyard, though, since it’s a rocky cliff that just leads to the waterfront. But my front yard is a very extensive wild garden put in by the previous owner with lovely cobblestone lanes in keeping with a cottage. Whole environment is lovely and peaceful yet very conducive for my mystery writing.

    As my mother-in-law always says about her house–the only way I’m leaving this place is in a wooden box:)

  28. oneoftheotherjennifers says:

    Wow, I love all the colors and all the patterns. I guess I’m not very discriminating, because I think they all look good together. Fortunately, my lack of discrimination bothers me not at all.

    Your house is going to be amazing.

  29. Dnelle says:

    I don’t understand the pastels thing. Isn’t it YOUR house? Shouldn’t it be filled wth colors/ patterns that make YOU happy, even if it’s a space you don’t use that often? I think even if you want it to look like Tim Burton’s undead nightmare you should go for it. Screw the pastels. A cottage filled with rich, saturated colors and exotic patterns would be pretty cool

  30. McB says:

    I picked the middle blue one. I liked the floral, but my reasoning was that the quilt is so gorgeous in itself, you don’t want the eye distracted by the busy floral. The blue is patterned, but more sedately, so it compliments.

  31. Jen Wyatt says:

    I’m reminded of those vibrant Creole cottages in Louisiana…but then I’m crazy for color, color and more color.

  32. I was going to join the use-the-colors-you-love chorus, except I completely understand your reasoning. I like contrast and actually like the middle fabric with both of the others – at least the color rendition on my computer.

    Ack! I have a ton more to say about color but I have to go. Relatives in town. Dinner out! They’re paying. This only happens once every 10 years or so…

  33. I think of my house as having two areas, public and private. I’ve done that with every house I’ve ever lived in. One is designed to make people feel comfortable, and the other is any damn thing I want. I got away from that in this big house and it didn’t work, so I’m going back to that now. It’s not that I hate the lighter colors, I don’t. They’re pretty and they’re soothing. I just like living and working in a jazzier atmosphere. So I create both.

  34. JulieB says:

    I do too, but they don’t work with the rest of my vision, and they weren’t “me” when I chose them. And, I didn’t trust the palate in the picture, so I tried to adjust it, and I have two different yellows going on…. Mine are just a bunch of mistakes. 🙂

  35. JulieB says:

    Does your mom make housecalls? 🙂

    That is great advice. Now I just have to figure out how to convince my husband to repaint. Do you think she’d give him a call?

  36. I love Kaffe Fassett. I’ve been collecting fabrics for a quilt. Crusie loves his stuff too (she has a number of books at Squalor on the River).

  37. I gravitate towards the English country cottage when I decorate, florals and stripes. I like it, find it soothing and as I am the one living with it 24/7 if people want something different go down the hall to my sister’s who is more black, white and primary colours. I love the quilt and the pillow and would make them the focus of the room. You said you like blue so match up the blue in the quilt and don’t look back, although splashes of yellow and green would be fun/interesting. However, I have the feeling that no matter what we all contribute in the end it will be what makes you happy and that’s the way it should be.

  38. Jen Wyatt says:

    Jenny, We can’t wait to see what you come up with because it’s going to kick ass and take names.
    I envy your freedom to do whatever you want with your cottage.

  39. Maine Betty says:

    I am having an orgy of window shopping at Pinterest, and I keep being attracted to white spaces with high ceilings. Partially because that’s the fashion appearing in magazines, I guess. I do love intense colors, but also need calm rooms.

    I also have had public spaces in my places, because sometimes I teach voice lessons. Just starting to look at small houses, my first time to purchase, so I’m very interested in this subject. But having put in enough zippers backwards to realize I’m not exactly a natural, doing my own upholstery is probably not in my future…

  40. Mermaid Scribbler says:

    This is completely beside the point, but if it were me…I would use (from the very first photo) the beautiful blue and white flower fabric (that you don’t think will go) to pipe the beautiful pink and white stripped fabric (also from the first photo). Just sayin’ – but I love Iris Apfel, so maybe you can’t trust me. I completely get the public vs. private space difference, but in some long ago issue of Veranda I saw a gorgeous traditional home painted creamy white, and the traditional furniture was covered in hot pink fabric with lime green piping. Delicious! Loved the pop. The rooms looked small, but maybe not as small as a cottage, though. For color inspiration, check out YouTube “Coastal Living Idea House at Seawatch NC”. They have some fab examples of using more color in the private areas without making you feel berzerko. It is a little boring compared to your fabulous Rowley quilt, though. Love the fabrics! The cottage is going to look spectacular.

  41. Love your color zoning thingie, maybe it’s ’cause I agree. Love the floral, so lovely. Get rid of that print in the middle, goes with nothing. Maybe one lone chaise in all-white room.

    Landscape architect! Magic words for me. Tell Molly I love her!

    I have just completed a trifecta of love. Thank you for enabling.

  42. Melanie says:

    It’s going to be gorgeous. I agree with Skye, who said something that suggested the middle fabric could serve as a bridge between the upstairs and down. Could you use that middle blue for piping on any of the more cottage-y fabrics, maybe?

    I love this, btw! Virtual decorating!

  43. German Chocolate Betty says:

    Well, she’s a bit far away for a housecall (smile). Telephone calls she would do, even to folks she doesn’t know. We can’t go into a store without her telling people her whole life story. She’d probably wear your husband down..which may or may not be a good thing!

    You know how they always make jokes about people picking out dogs like themselves. Well, my mom has a small, speckled (“ticking”) Jack Russell, and she herself is short, freckled and also, when she gets her mind set to something, grabs on and just won’t let go…


  44. Micki says:

    (-: Longest pubic hairs EVAH! You are part of the club! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself. I’ve been sniggering about the funny avatars ever since someone brought it up, and it brought a ray of snarky sunshine to a very dim and muddled week. I hope nobody minds . . . .)

  45. JulieB says:

    @ GCBetty, I couldn’t reply directly under your comment, but I loved it! Your mom sounds just great!

  46. JulieB says:

    That was a cool segment. And, I like the idea of the unifying color theme for the main areas.

  47. German Chocolate Betty says:

    Well, *my* avatar has a long, rat-like tail (I’m going with tail, since I’m a girl…). Actually, that’s quite appropriate, because I had pet rats as a kid and just luuuuurved them. So a rat-tail is cool by me.

  48. LOVE that Rowley quilt, but of course I would. Can’t say I dig the blue floral at all, anywhere, mostly because I once wore a bridesmaid dress made of something very similar. That said, as it is your place, IMNSHO you should go with the colors you want everywhere. Cottage != pastels. Not all the time, certainly not in a place where you want jewel tones and startling transitions to keep your eyes amused and your soul smiling.

  49. Dnelle says:

    Oh, see, I don’t want people to feel comfortable in my home. That’s what was confusing me 🙂

  50. merrymac says:

    Retraced my steps here because I’ve been looking around the internet for that fabulous paisley in your stash – the green with the blue and then the floral blue-on-blue just beneath it. Anyway, I noticed that BHG has changed their home page so the link I put up earlier is no good. However, if you happen to over at Pinterest and have a moment, I put the photo up on my “Sew” board. It’s under the name, Merry Macdougal. There’s also a photo there of an ottoman recover project that is similar to yours. I am definitely trying that and now I know how to do it. Just wanted to say “thanks”.

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