gray for off white trim

A refresher on choosing paint colors for your walls.

How to choose paint color.

It seems that choosing a color to paint the walls is one of the most difficult choices for a lot of DIYers. In the 24-hour Interior Decorating short course I wrote and taught, we spend at least 6 hours learning about colors. This is the summary version of part of that.

You may not like this, but the best advice I can give to anyone thinking of painting is to hire a professional color specialist for a one-hour consultation. The cost will be about the same as a gallon of good quality paint and it could save you a lot of money.

Don’t tie her hands before she even gets there.

HOWEVER. If you hire a color consultant and have already made your mind up between one or two colors, you are limiting the consultant’s ability to lead you to the right color. If you genuinely want your consultant’s help and guidance, don’t limit them with such definites as ‘I HATE yellow, NO yellow.’ Or, ‘He wants this color, and I want this one. Which one should we use?’. Or ‘Well, we already picked the flooring, and I know it has a certain undertone, but I want this color.’

This is the situation where the consultant has two choices: agree with you, or try to lead you to a better solution. But that means YOU must be willing to listen and at least try to understand the reasons behind her guidance. If she offers her best suggestion, based on her expertise, and you override it out of hand, then all she can do is say, ‘Well, then, why not just go with the one you (or he) likes.’

What paint should, and shouldn’t, do.

If you are still reading, you may be one of the DIY-ers who are determined to choose the color herself. The color of the walls in your home can make you and your family feel warm and safe. It can help make the rooms feel larger, it can infuse a mood and feel to support the design aesthetic, reinforce the colors in the soft furnishings, and support or even create a focal point.

It can also make the window trim look dirty. Or the ceiling. It can make the room feel dingy. It can make the whites appear old, it can make the green sofa jump out and holler, ‘Look at me, look at me!’ or it can make it blend into the background and let the view through the window do the hollering. It can contribute to making the room appear smaller. It can make the room feel cold in the winter, or overly warm in the summer.

How to choose, the easy way.

How to choose the color: Here is the classic method of choosing, and it uses three colors in a scheme. It also assumes that you have a blank canvas and that you have no fixed elements to contend with. Many contemporary color schemes use two colors, but the principals are the same. It’s good to keep this method in your back pocket. If you have a printed sofa, for example, already in the room, this may be how you choose a color scheme.

Start with an existing color scheme. The easiest way is to take your scheme from something which is already mixing the colors you are leaning toward — such as a painting, a cushion or a set of dishes ( or the print sofa). Don’t try to re-invent the wheel; people get paid a lot of money to design these color schemes. Get paint samples and match the three most prevalent colors in your ‘inspiration’ piece: the background color, the most noticed in the print, and the second most noticed color. Match paint chips to these colors. Match exactly. This is your color scheme.

The main color is the background color and should appear on 60% of the surfaces in a room (walls, drapes, floors) – there is your wall color. The most noticed in the print should appear on 30%, ( large upholstered pieces), and the remaining color on 10% (accessories). These colors can appear in different forms: various textures or surfaces and prints. The values (intensity) can vary somewhat; just stay on the color – no mixing blue-green and yellow-green, for example. If you are not familiar with a color wheel, buy one at the art supply store and spend some time with it.

The reality is, however, that almost all color schemes for rooms must consider something already in the room, and it’s easier for you to use that something as the starting point—the fixed elements. The best example of this is a large river-rock fireplace. No matter what you do, a blue color scheme will probably not work well in this room because river rock is, by its very nature, green-based.

Choosing a color for an existing room demands that you pay attention to these fixed elements if they are not changing. The undertone of these elements must lead you to the right wall color. For example, if your flooring and cabinet color have a yellow undertone, your wall color should work with that yellow. Blue? Maybe, but choosing the opposite color could make the yellow appear even more prominent, and the blue even bluer. A pink-beige? No, not so much. What about a green color? Green and yellow sit side by side on the color wheel and can look great together. But it’s dicey. If you pick a green with a yellow undertone, you’ll probably be OK. What would be the best color if you had yellow-based wood? A cream, or ivory, or a yellow-based color.

Don’t forget the lighting

Or — the window trim, the baseboards, and the doors are creamy, or ivory. The cool jewel tones of green, blue, or red will make these elements look dirty. They need warm colors: orange-red, yellow, orange, and olive green to make them look like they belong. (Here’s an article I wrote about choosing gray wall color which shows how this works).

I often suggest this: think of these colors as a plaid pattern. Would you wear it?
Yellow and blue plaid, yellow and pink, yellow and green???

For example:

I worked with a client who wanted to transition her open concept family room from the brown trend to the gray and fresh trend. She had one prominent wall where she was testing the grays. Time after time, she chose a new gray and painted the wall, None was ‘right’.

She asked for my help, and I knew very quickly what was wrong. She was using blue-gray, and the trim, windows, and doors were all cream. (Which worked with the brown trend furniture.)

We chose a green-gray, and it was perfect. It’s about eight years later, and it still looks good. And she didn’t have to change all the brown furniture, either. She added lots of sea-glass colors, and it is a beautiful room.

One last tip:

Once you have chosen a few colors, it is essential that you test them in the room where they will be used. Purchase a tester, or a liter if necessary, of the paints you have chosen and test them all. This does NOT mean painting them on the wall. Your eye will see a blend of the colors, not each one individually. Go to the dollar store and get some white poster boards and paint one color on each. Keep them away from each other and move them around the room; see what happens to the colors at night and different times during the day.

And please, also, consider the color of the light in your light fixtures. If you have warm white light bulbs, the paint colors will be very different than if you have daylight or cool white light bulbs. Read this column for more info on that.

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