Photo by Johnny Miller
Staring down the rainbow wall of strips in a home improvement store is enough to make most people feel an acute case of Paint Paralysis coming on. No one wants to invest time and money on painting only to end up feeling like, somehow or other, they blew it color-wise. Interior designers insist that as long as you diligently swatch-test options in the room and then go with your gut, you can’t lose. Umm, yeah—trusting in that maxim is easier said than done. A little guidance can go a long way toward choosing paint colors with confidence.
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Look to your fallbacks Though you might not realize it in as many words, you already know which colors you love. Clothes shopping, grabbing a bunch of flowers at the farmers’ market, admiring a particular painting in a museum—chances are you naturally gravitate toward certain shades. Think about those leanings as you consider decor decisions.
Take a hands-on approach Instagram and Pinterest are great resources, but starting there can feel overwhelming. “I love pulling tear sheets from actual magazines and creating a physical mood board for a room,” says designer Eddie Ross, author of Modern Mix. Another technique is creating a vibe tray, a preferred technique of designer Kelly Wearstler. Simply load a tray with things you love: paint swatches, fabric snips, objects, even hardware. Your choices indicate your consistent preferences.
Check your closet Which colors tend to dominate on your hangers and in your drawers? Paint colors can be mixed and matched just like your favorite outfits.
Go au naturel Mother Nature is basically the OG of color theory and never misses her mark. “If a color combo exists in nature, whether it’s in a flower, fruit or landscape, it will work in your living room,” says New York City interior designer Elaine Griffin.
Note: Use the Project Calculators at homedepot.com to figure out how much paint to buy.
To try out paint colors without bothering with a brush, order 12”x 12” peel-and-stick samples of Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams colors to easily place on walls. samplize.com, $5 each
Photo by David A. Land
Go With the Flow
Whether you’re painting one room at a time or multiple spaces at once, your end game is to create a color palette that feels cohesive. Your home’s layout is key—as in, you should only use different surprising shades in rooms with distinct dividers between them, like walls and doors. In an open-concept space, where you can see into one room from others, you’re going to want more flow.
Color is the way to create a connecting link, so you want to choose something that will draw the eye through the space, says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Institute and author of The Complete Color Harmony: Pantone Edition. In connecting rooms, she recommends taking a lighter or darker variation of the first room’s color or using an analogous color, which is one next to it on the color wheel.
Keep the saturation level in mind too. “If you’re working with a color strip, stick with the fourth color in the line,” suggests Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams. “When colors are all the same value, they speak to each other.” Repetition is key—not just in paint colors but in furniture and decor. You want to work with a handful of colors that will be woven through each room. IRL that could mean, for instance, painting your foyer a deep navy, then echoing that color in the artwork in the dining room, and again with the couch in the living room. It’s not necessarily important that people recognize or be able to name the hue you pick, says architectural color consultant Amy Krane. “It’s about how it makes them feel.” When you choose well, it adds depth and complexity to the room.
Don’t just dip a toe into a color—dive in! “An accent wall looks good at the end of the hall, but otherwise, let’s see all four walls done,” says designer Elaine Griffin. “You want to marry a color, not date it!”
Black interior doors They’re popping up everywhere! According to interior designer Emilie Munroe, suggesting them throws clients for a loop at first, because they’re used to standard white. “But black looks so great.”
Improving on nature Think of natural colors with the volume cranked WAY up: really saturated tones like mossy greens and deep olives.
Ditching white trim Classic white is ceding ground to colors like red and taupe. Another take: Paint trim the same color as the wall, with trim in a satin finish, which creates a monochromatic look that helps expand the room’s perimeter, says Griffin.
High-gloss mirror finishes Formerly reserved almost exclusively for trim, high-gloss paint is making its mark on walls too. “Your surfaces have to be prepped exceptionally well,” says Ross, “but high-gloss walls lend instant glamour to any room.”
The ’80s are back Colors like muted peaches, corals and blues that were popular in the ’80s are roaring back—but with a twist. They’re more saturated and modernized. If you’re going to use them, keep the color palette tight and accent pieces contemporary.
Banish bright white ceilings Bright white overhead is over. Opt for a warmer color, such as white with a very subtle hint of the wall color added.
Painted borders and murals With wallpaper trending big-time, people are also opting for branches, birds, flowers and patterns painted directly on walls.
Matte finishes We can thank decorating doyenne Joanna Gaines for the popularity of this trend, which won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
It sounds a little woo-woo New Agey, but thinking about how you want to feel when you’re in a room is an important element of color choice. Brights tend to ramp up energy; cools are soothing. That’s why blues are so popular in bedrooms.
Photo by Johnny Miller
The Power of Two
Like BFFs Betty and Veronica, milk and cookies or peanut butter and jelly, these shades are just better together.
Gray & white
Gray balances wood tones really well—the trick is to find a gray that’s not too warm or too cool, according to Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams.
Navy & white
A crisp, no-fail combo that works in fashion, nautical-inspired spaces, wherever. The classic patterns on things like Iznik tiles can still be used today because of this color pairing.
Black & white
There’s a reason a little black dress is always a slam-dunk. “Exposure is reassurance when it comes to color,” explains Wadden. “We feel more comfortable with colors when we see other people wearing or using them.”
Gray & yellow
Gray works with almost any other saturated color as long as you’re careful about the gray. “If it’s achromatic, meaning it contains no color besides black and white, that type of gray won’t be very complex but will mix with anything,” says architectural color consultant Amy Krane.
Blue & green
An interesting color pairing, this combo is often seen in nature. Mimicking palettes you can find outdoors means they won’t be a shock to the eye.
Instead of painting potential picks directly onto your walls, paint each test color on a large piece of foam board. That way you can move the boards around the roomat different times of day and night to really get a sense of how changing light and shadows play off the colors.
Find the Right White
Zeroing in on the just-right white paint for your space will take a little doing, because when you add up the available whites from all the major manufacturers, there are literally hundreds. White often isn’t just white—it contains undertones of other colors, like blues or pinks, that make it seem warmer or colder. A few points to keep in mind:
Think about where you are geographically and what type of light you have. “In the northern United States the light is bluer and our weather can be cold, so a cool white in your home can feel too chilly and antiseptic,” says Wadden. “A creamier white can warm up the space. If you’re someplace that’s very hot, like Florida, a true or cooler white feels more appropriate.”
Cooler whites work well in areas that benefit from an overall clean feeling, like a bathroom or a kitchen.
Dare to compare
In the paint store or aisle, Wadden recommends looking at the swatches both under a natural light source and against a white surface. Other designers swear by a gray background instead.
“Use your color wheel for inspiration! Stay true to the mood you want to set throughout the home.”
—Color pro Leatrice Eiseman
Navy & fuchsia
“Pink is the navy blue of India,” said style icon Diana Vreeland. This boldly elegant combo resonates because the raspberry hue is created when you mix red and white to make pink, then add blue. Marry with white to dramatize the effect, like in a bedroom with crisp white linens.
Citron green & tobacco
Think of a kiwi sliced in half or spring blossoms on woody branches. “This is a happy combination,” says Griffin. “Tobacco’s dark brown anchors the crisp, acidic citron’s zing. It looks great in breakfast nooks and dining rooms.”
Burnt orange & charcoal
Close your eyes and picture the deepest seared colors of a California sunset. These colors are tailor-made for more masculine spaces like dens, home offices and man caves.
Mustard yellow & dark olive green
Modernize the combo with a green that’s more olive than hunter or khaki. “Think of it like citron, tobacco’s sexier cousin,” says Griffin.
The New Neutrals
Grays, beiges and greiges are versatile, but blacks, blues and greens can function similarly in the right setting. “The concept of neutrals has expanded far beyond the whites, creams and beiges of yesteryear,” says Griffin. “Deep, rich colors are the new neutrals in our bolder, more sophisticated color palettes.” To figure out which statement-making hue could be right for you, consider the light the room gets. South-facing rooms are brightest and work well for darker colors. Also account for the floor’s finish and how it will interact with the walls. Finally, let go of the notion that darker neutrals won’t work in small rooms. They can transform tiny spaces into jewel boxes.
The perfect-for-your-space white paint is a joy to behold, but don’t forget the crucial step of offsetting all that lightness with some dark elements. You always want to balance a room between light and dark, says interior designer Elaine Griffin.
Designers’ “Don’t Worry, You’ll Love It” Whites
Benjamin Moore Simply White
Farrow & Ball Strong White
Valspar Wispy White
Benjamin Moore Glacier White
Benjamin Moore White Dove (a great go-to for ceilings and trim)
Farrow & Ball All White
Benjamin Moore Super White
Benjamin Moore Chantilly Lace
Sherwin-Williams Extra White
Benjamin Moore White Heron
Valspar Du Jour