Picking the Right White
The single most popular paint color in the world might also be the most confounding. One problem is that there are just so many variations of the hue. But don't assume they're all the same. "If I were to lay some whites down side-by-side, you would immediately be able to see the differences," says Ken Charbonneau, owner of Color Marketing Consultants in New York City.

"The first step in picking a white is deciding whether you want a warm white or a cool one. Warmer shades of white incorporate an undertone of yellow—think French vanilla ice cream—or a touch of rust, pink, or brown. ­Cooler whites, on the other hand, suggest a hint of blue, green, or gray. Choose one or the other based on the existing tones most prevalent in a room. "Take a look at your brown-leather sectional, or your cherry floors, or your oriental rug," he says. "These things are there, don't ignore them."

More often than not, people lean to the warmer whites, which far outsell their crisper cousins. That said, there are those who prefer a cleaner, more modern white, says Becky Spak, a color-marketing specialist with Sherwin-Williams (a range of the company's whites are shown at right). "Maybe they have a lot of stainless steel, or a more modern urban-loft look. Those are the folks who usually look to the cleaner, cooler whites."

Once you have the tonal family established, follow the same rules as any other color: Choose two or three shades, put up a row of sample swatches—be sure to do two coats of each, advises Spak—and eyeball them during the day and at night, with the lights on. Then go with your gut; odds are, one of your choices will either ­soften or complement the givens in the room.

Finally, consider staying ultra-stark on the often-overlooked surface overhead. A white with little or no undertone, or at most a slight gray cast, creates a neutral "sky" above and visually lifts the ceiling height. Says Charbonneau, "That's really the place for the whitest white of them all."

Decoding the Strip Chip
That's what that narrow row of darker-to-lighter shades of one color is known as in the trade. The darkest shade anchors the card, then it is "let down" into lighter versions that contain less color pigment and more pure white.

So how come some colors start to look redder or bluer or somehow different as the shades get lighter? "That's really a trick of the eye," says Carl Minchew, director of color technology for Benjamin Moore. "It's your perception of the color that changes. The color pigment remains the same."

Color perception is influenced by several factors, including the quality of the light around you (is it yellowish incandescent light or bluer fluorescent light?) and the "simultaneous contrast" factor—what other colors surround the one you're looking at? A white background will make very vibrant yellow look less bright but more intense. Against a mahogany surface, the same color will look lighter and brighter.

Paint colors tend to appear more intense on the wall than on a tiny little rectangle of paper, so the strip chip does allow you to preview what a ­deeper value might look like. And if you're nervous about a given color, going one step lighter can be a safer bet—you'll probably get something in between once it's up on the wall.

If you're really at a loss, try this: Find a strip where you can live with the darkest-color chip; then you know you'll like the colors at the middle and the top of the range.

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