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  • Writer's pictureGrako M.V

How to Choose the Best Paint Color

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

So you’ve renovated your house like a skilled surgeon, fixing structural flaws and preserving each room’s distinct architectural character. But something’s still missing. More than likely, that something is color—the renovator’s secret weapon.

Did you know that crown molding can visually raise the ceiling or lower it, depending on how it contrasts with the walls? Or that deft use of color can turn one room into a lively gathering place and another into a relaxing space for curling up with a book?

How To Choose Interior Paint Colors

1. Create a Color Scheme That Matches Your Home’s Furniture

In a world where thousands of colors can be yours for just $25 a gallon, it pays to consider the advice of architectural color consultant Bonnie Krims.

“Always remember that while there are thousands of paint chips at the store, there are only 7 colors in the paint spectrum” says Krims, referring to red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (what Color Theory 101 students are often taught to remember by the mnemonic device, “Roy G. Biv”). “I always suggest eliminating a couple even before you go to the paint store.”

Here’s her sure-fire 4 step method for creating a color scheme:

Pro2Pro Tip: If you find yourself paralyzed at the paint store, unable to choose your color sample cards, Krims offers this tip: Look at the darkest color at the bottom of the strip. “If you can live with the one at the bottom, you know you’ll like the middle and top, but if you choose by looking at the top, lightest colors, all the cards in that category start to look the same.”

  1. Start by selecting three colors from an existing object in your home. “Take a pillow from the family-room sofa, your favorite tie or scarf, or a painting—anything that conveys comfort or has an emotional connection for you—and take that object to the paint store,” says Krims. “Find three sample strips with those colors, and you instantly have 15 to 18 colors you can use, since each sample strip typically contains six paint colors.”

  2. The next step is to choose one of the three paint colors as your wall color and to save the other two to be used around the room in fabric or furnishings.

  3. To choose the colors for adjacent rooms, take the same original three color sample strips and select another color.

  4. Finally, choose a fourth color that can be used as an accent: “Splash a little of that color into every room of the house—by way of a pillow or plate or artwork. It makes a connection between the spaces,” Krims says.

2. Decide on the Finish to Create an Appealing Visual Effect

Once you have your colors in hand, consider the finish you’ll be using. Though today’s flat paints have increased stain resistance, conventional wisdom has long held that a satin (also called eggshell) finish is best for walls because it is scrubbable and doesn’t draw attention to imperfections. Semi-gloss and high-gloss finishes, it was thought, were best left to the trim, where they could accent the curves of a molding profile or the panels of a door.

3. Match The Color To The Feeling You Want In The Room

Colors evoke an emotional response. In general, cool colors (blues, greens, and clean whites) are perceived as restful and soothing while warm colors (like red, orange, and yellow) create a sense of drama and energy. Cool colors are calming in private rooms—like the ice-blue that covers the walls in this bath; warm colors are a good way to enliven social spaces. | Photo by Patrick Barta/Cornerhouse Stock Photo

The psychology of color is a minor ­obsession among paint professionals. Many say you should choose a color based at least in part on how a room is used and the mood you want to establish.

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, co-founder and editor of the blog suggests, painting social rooms (dining rooms, kitchens, family and living ­areas) warm colors like daffodil-yellow, coral, or cranberry, and give private rooms (home offices, powder rooms, bedrooms) cooler hues like sage-green, violet, or sky-blue.

Keep in mind, when it comes to emotional effect, of course, one person’s welcome-home orange will be another person’s signal to scram.

4. Know Your Whites

Whites come in a staggering variety. Pure, “clean” whites are formulated without tinted undertones. These are favored by designers looking to showcase artwork or furnishings and are often used on ceilings to create a neutral field overhead.

Most other whites are either warm—with yellow, rust, pink, or brownish undertones—or cool, with green, blue, or gray undertones. Behr’s Mary Rice says: “Use warmer whites in rooms without a lot of natural light, or to make larger spaces seem cozier.”

How To Use Interior Paint Colors

5. Create Flow in Open Plan Spaces

Using the same gray in the open-plan adjoining living room unifies the two spaces. The simplicity of archways with no casework pulls in the view of the next room rather than framing it. | Photo by Karin Melvin

Continuity is important on the ground floor, but color can help “zone” a big open space, separating the dining area from the TV room, for instance. There’s no need to stick to a single color or even a single color palette that is either all warm (reds, oranges, yellows) or all cool (blues, greens, bright whites).

6. Make Small Spaces Feel Bigger or Cozier

What Colors Make A Room Look Bigger?

Generally, crisp whites can make a space feel bigger and more open, while warm colors create a sense of intimacy. At the most rudimentary level, large rooms generally can handle more color than small rooms. “Lighter hues can open up a small space, while darker colors give the perception that the surfaces are closer than they are,” says Debbie Zimmer.

What Colors Make A Room Cozier?

Of course, some small spaces don’t need to feel big: If you’re aiming to create a welcoming or cozy atmosphere in a foyer, study, or library, for example, hunter green or rust may serve you better than pale peach or celery.

7. Using Color Architecturally

Reddish browns provide a visual connection from the dining room to the front door (Sherman-Williams 2801 Rookwood Dark Red) through a series of cased and uncased openings, which allow a glimpse of the entry’s sunny walls. | Photo by Karin Melvin

One of the most effective ways to use color to transform a room is to play up its architectural features. Molding, mantels, built-in bookcases, arched doorways, wainscot, windows, and doors all offer an opportunity to add another layer of interest to colored walls.

Painting Molding and Doorways

For subtle emphasis, Sheri Thompson, director of color marketing and design for Sherwin-Williams, suggests painting molding or doorways just one step lighter or darker than the primary wall. “It’s a subtle shift in color but it really brings your eye to the detail,” she says.

Painting a metallic glaze right on top of an existing painted element, like a ceiling medallion, is another way to draw attention. “A copper or bronze finish is very translucent and it gives a nice shimmer that enhances the architectural feature,” says Thompson.

One way to give adjoining rooms in ground-floor living areas a harmonious look is to paint them in colors with the same undertones, like the yellow-based red, khaki, and pumpkin used here. Keeping trim color consistent from room to room helps avoid any jarring transitions. Private areas that typically remain closed off from view—home offices, bedrooms, and powder rooms, for example—don’t need to tie in as closely with their neighboring spaces. | Photo by Patrick Barta/Cornerhouse Stock Photo

Where Do You Switch Color When Moving From Door to Casing?

It’s not an open-and-shut case, but the rule of thumb goes something like this: Paint the face of the door the color of the trim in the room it faces when shut, and the edges of the door the same color as the trim in the room it swings ­into.

If you’re using different trim colors in adjoining rooms, they need to work well together. “Doors tend to stay open, so you’ll have the trim color from an adjoining room in any given space on a regular basis,” observes painter Susan English. So, let’s say you have a barn-red door opening into a room with pale yellow walls.

8. Exploring Using Two Different Colors in The Same Room

For a bolder approach, try using two different colors in the same room. For example, paint a built-in bookcase or niche a shade of green in a room with blue walls, which will highlight the items on the bookcase or inside the recessed area.

9. Create Contrast in Rooms with Wainscoting

A room containing wainscot provides a good opportunity for a contrast between light and dark. A dark wainscot below a bright wall will draw attention to the upper walls, while a bright white wainscot next to a colored wall will focus the eye on the wainscot. You can also use paint to create the effect of wainscot where it doesn’t exist by covering the bottom third of the wall in one color and the upper walls in another; then place a piece of flat molding along the intersection and paint it the color of the lower wall to reinforce the wainscot look.

10. Create An Accent Wall to Add a Focal Point

Where rooms are relatively featureless, painting an “accent wall” in a vivid hue where the others are white or neutral can add a dramatic, contemporary edge. Or, as Ken Charbonneau, a New York color marketing consultant, suggests, paint the primary walls a soft color such as beige or celadon green and the accent wall three shades darker. “The accent wall still gives the room some punch, but it’s not as dramatic.”

11. Explore Bolder Options with Multiple Colors

If drama is your goal, you might rethink the entire notion of painting a wall from corner to corner, says Doty Horn, director of color and design for Benjamin Moore, and you’ll create an architectural emphasis where one doesn’t exist. Moving around the room in a clockwise direction, try painting a third of one wall and two thirds of the adjacent wall, wrapping the corner in color. Then paint the last one eighth of the second wall and three quarters of its adjacent wall, covering that corner.

12. Treat Your Ceiling Like a Fifth Wall

Painting walls in complementary colors, like the deep red and gray-green at left, and furnishing with neutral hues of similar intensity creates a harmonious look. Red walls make this large dining room more intimate, while highlighting the white wainscoting and trim. Red overhead also lowers the ceiling visually, making the space feel cozier and more convivial—a plus in a room designed for conversation. | Photo by Susan Seubert

To give low ceilings the illusion of height, paint them white and any crown molding the same color as the wall; this will keep from interrupting your gaze upward.

Though sticking to “ceiling white” generally makes a space feel airy, a similar effect can be achieved by painting the ceiling a lighter shade of the wall color. Just take the paint sample card that has your wall color as the middle choice, then go one or two choices lighter for the ceiling color. The result will be a room that appears larger, because the contrast between wall color and ceiling color has been softened. In a small room, such as a bathroom, the ceiling can even be painted the same color as the walls to make it look bigger.

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