Putting on a new coat of wall color has long been touted as the fastest, least expensive way to refresh a room. But choosing which hue to use? Not so easy.
While it may seem like hundreds of colors are clamoring for your attention as you scan the chip strips at your local paint store, you probably already know what you like. If you’ve got lived-in spaces, you have the start of a color palette. And if you’re dealing with empty, echoey, just-moved-in rooms? You should wait to paint (more on that coming up).
A wall color doesn’t just provide the backdrop for the things you live with; it’s interactive. Cool blue walls can make a roomful of mixed wood furniture finishes come alive and feel more unified; a pale shade of yellow that repeatedly pops up in your patterned pillows and drapery fabric can tie together a crazy quilt of collected pieces.
Don’t forget that rooms need to relate, too. “Even if you love color, avoid painting each room a different one, or it can feel like a fun house,” says designer Virginia Toledo of New Jersey firm Toledo Geller. “If one room has colorful walls, the adjacent room might have neutral walls and restrict color to the fabrics. This adds dimension and texture to a home.”
Before you get ready to roll, keep reading for more pro paint ideas and troubleshooting know-how.
- Painting wall swatches? Go big, at least 2 feet square. Place them where you can see them with fixed finishes, like flooring and hardware, as well as your furniture.
- Consider the wood tones that are part of a room’s existing color palette. You want to pick paint that will flatter them.
- Don’t forget windows. If you don’t plan to paint them, keep their color in mind. Vinyl or clad windows may be an icy, cool white that you’ll want to factor in to your trim color.
- View furnishings, upholstery, and any curtains or rugs alongside your paint swatches to find a wall color that ties them all together.
Some things to keep in mind as you winnow down wall colors
PICK PAINT COLORS…LAST
Starting from scratch designing a space? Always select furnishings before picking paint colors, advises Boston-based color consultant Bonnie Krims. “Otherwise you’ll have to match your furnishings to your walls, which can be challenging!”
CONSIDER FIXED FINISHES
Unimpressed with an existing surface, like the hardwood floor color? Annie Elliott, a Washington, D.C.–based designer, suggests wielding color to counteract it. “If hardwood floors are too reddish orange, for instance, we may paint the walls blue or green, which are complementary, to tone them down.”
ZERO IN ON A FOCAL POINT
“I ask, ‘What’s the showstopper?’ and go from there,” says Elliott. “It might be a fantastic rug, or a painting, or fabric drapes.” To find colors close to her inspiration piece, Elliott uses a handheld device to scan the object; working via Bluetooth, a free smartphone app spits out near matches from 100,000-plus possible paint color choices (Nix Mini 2 Color Sensor, $99).
ASSESS THE LIGHT LEVEL
Determine the amount (sunny or dark) and type (warm or cool). Western-facing rooms may be too bright in the afternoon to handle warm reds and oranges; a northern exposure’s soft, filtered light makes it a great setting for virtually any color. For New York designer Thomas Jayne, eastern light is grating; a bright white in a room with eastern exposure may be hard to look at. “I also imagine a color through the four seasons: What will the color look like in the winter when the leaves are down, and in summer when there’s a canopy of green overhead?”
Paint Finish Matters
Once you choose your hue, test it in the finish that you want to use—whether satin, matte, or flamboyant high gloss—as this will affect the color’s appearance, says paint-color historian and consultant Patrick Baty.
Another important consideration is practicality: Shiny is more durable than flat. Whatever finish you choose, Baty suggests using formulations from the same manufacturer. Otherwise, he adds, “you can end up with paints of different sheen levels.”
One Easy Solution: Limit Your Choices
Expertly curated palettes, whether they’re historical colors or designer-driven collections, allow you to sidestep having to winnow down the 3,500-plus colors typically found in each of the major paint lines. One of the newest, and most tightly edited: Clare by interior designer Nicole Gibbons, which offers zero-VOC interior paint in 56 colors (just four whites!), as well as no-mess 8-inch-square adhesive color samples for testing, and a range of painting tools. Find them and order them online only at clare.com.
Best-selling shades: Though Clare’s whites are definite hits with both designers and homeowners (Whipped is number one), these are the collection’s other most popular colors: (1) Current Mood, (2) Headspace, (3) Wing It, (4) Greige, and (5) Penthouse.
“My goal is to offer timeless shades that will look beautiful in any interior, that you’ll never tire of, and that you’ll never have to second-guess.”—interior designer Nicole Gibbons, founder of Clare
Three ways pros test paint colors
ORDER SUPERSIZE SAMPLES
“On the samplize.com site, you can order a 12-by-12-inch paint sample that will stick to your wall but can easily be taken down and moved around. The finish is very true to what the wall will look like. This allows you to test out multiple samples without having to paint swatches all over the wall.” —Tracy Morris, interior designer
PUT IT ON POSTER BOARD
“When it comes to testing colors, poster board is your friend. Paint large pieces—more than one, if possible—and tape them up around the room to observe the color at all times of day. Because the existing color of a room can be distracting when you’re choosing a new one, it’s best to prime the walls white so you can look at colors in a neutral space.” —Annie Elliott, interior designer
GO DIRECT TO THE WALL
“Paint at least two coats on an area 2 feet square or larger, ideally against the trim of a doorway or window so you can see how the color looks in that context. Also, consider what the light will be like when you are spending the most time in the room. Paint one sample on a wall with direct sunlight and one on another wall without it. Make sure you still like the color in all lights.” —Bonnie Krims, color consultant
A Tool for Choosing Hues
Not sure which shades go together? A color wheel can help you see how they relate to one another
Selecting multiple hues that need to complement one another? “Use the color wheel to help point you in the right direction,” suggests Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams.
“If you’re going for a traditional look, consider a soothing analogous pairing, or colors from the same side of the color wheel, like blue and green. For something more modern and high energy, try complementary colors found on opposite sides of the wheel, like blue and orange.” A smartphone app puts the design tool in your pocket (Color Wheel, $1.99 for iOS or Android).
Got a space that presents a problem? Paint may have the fix
ENLARGE THE SPACE
It’s not color itself that makes a room seem smaller, says Krims, but the amount of contrast in the room. “The more contrast, the smaller it looks. The solution: Use all light colors—or all dark colors,” as shown above.
RAISE THE CEILING
Paint the crown (and maybe even the base molding) the same color as the wall to make the ceiling feel higher. Or try New Jersey–based color consultant Amy Wax’s eye-catching fix: “I have used a reflective paint, such as paint with a pearl finish, to add some luminosity to the top of the room, giving the illusion that the ceiling is a bit higher.”
MAKE A BIG ROOM COZIER
Layering color can cozy up an outsize space. One idea: installing a chair rail, then opting for different hues above and below it to break up the expanse (for tips, see the following page). Or go for one moody hue; dark colors absorb light, so they can visually shrink a space.
Tip: Consider a Color’s Undertone
To make colors flow from room to room, match the undertones, suggests Jayne. “People should know there’s a warm palette, usually based on yellow, and a cool palette, based on blue. If you pick out all warm palette colors for a house, it will have a flow; same with all cool colors. If you want a creamy-yellow living room, for instance, then maybe the hall is also a warm color, like a green with yellow undertones. It helps modulate things.”
How to select shades for challenging spaces or to work with existing details
TIPS FOR PICKING TRIM COLORS
Consider the trim as the color that outlines the room, says Wax. “A crisp white can be a clean outline that is sharp and defined; a brighter trim accentuates the space’s architectural details, while a softer trim allows you to focus on other elements, such as soothing wall colors or artwork.” Don’t forget to take vinyl or clad windows into account. “If you pick a trim white that is too creamy, replacement windows may look like a cold white and not match, which can be distracting,” she adds.
For an easy way to select a trim color that “goes” but still makes a statement, try this fuss-free tactic from Toledo: “Often when we want to punctuate the trim, we will select a paint color for the walls and simply look on the same sample strip and go one or two shades darker—the difference in color is subtle and sophisticated, a small detail that makes a significant impact.” Looking for something less statement-making? Go a few shades lighter on the trim instead.
“I generally follow the traditional practice of painting the halls, passages, and staircases in a fairly neutral color,” says Baty. “It is far easier to lead off from this with color in individual rooms.”
Choosing colors for above and below a chair rail
“Think of the colors as having weight to them,” Wax says. “In a smaller room it’s best to have the heavier color on the bottom, especially if the colors above and below are in the same family. A larger room can handle the darker color being on the top without closing in the room.”
For a classic, polished look, Wax recommends using a satin finish on the lower portion of the wall, which can make it read like wainscoting. Not sure what pairing to pick? “Have the colors above and below the chair rail be a lighter and darker version in the same family, such as light green above and a darker green below.”
How to approach color in an open-plan space
When rooms in an open main floor are all visible at a glance, the easiest option—picking a single color and sticking with it—is arguably the best tack to take. “With an open plan, there often isn’t a good spot to change paint color without it looking disjointed,” says Morris.
“Painting all the open-plan areas one color will make the whole space feel bigger and more cohesive.” Then she will layer in unexpected color accents, or use wallpaper in an adjacent powder room or mudroom to add interest.
Create a Master Paint Plan
For choices that flow cohesively throughout a home, decide whether you want to go with cool, more modern colors, or warm ones that tend toward the traditional. “We start with the main living space or the largest room, as that will have the most surface covered and set the tone for the remainder of the spaces,” says Toledo. “Not every room must have a different color; in fact, it’s ideal to repeat colors when possible, especially on trim, which helps with consistency.”
To that end, Krims often creates a tone-on-tone effect by having her paint store mix different shades of the same color. “Then the ceiling color or walls of an adjoining room might be a reduced or increased percentage of the main area’s wall color.” Here, three pro-designed whole-house color palettes taken from real life.
For an early-1900s home with modest-size rooms (above), Amy Wax went with pale hues of similar intensity. “The soft palette makes the rooms seem more expansive than they actually are, and creates a beautiful flow.”
- Benjamin Moore Golden Garden
- Benjamin Moore Tree Moss
- Benjamin Moore Georgetown Pink Beige
- Benjamin Moore Soft Chinchilla
- Benjamin Moore Sea Urchin
- Benjamin Moore Mayonnaise
COOL (NOT COLD) COLORS
For a French Provincial–style house with terra-cotta floors in the main spaces, Thomas Jayne went for blues and greens with a hint of warmth. Coordinating shades strike the same note for a cohesive look.
- Farrow & Ball Green Blue
- Farrow & Ball Clunch
- Benjamin Moore Misted Fern
- Farrow & Ball Dimity
- Benjamin Moore Beachcomber
- Benjamin Moore Palladian Blue (at 50% )
RICH HISTORICAL HUES
An ornate William Morris wallpaper on many of the walls and ceilings in an 1840s Italianate inspired the saturated shades here chosen by Bonnie Krims. “The end result was a seamless flow between spaces.”