The Secret to Picking the Perfect Paint Color

For many homeowners, picking the perfect paint color is a daunting task - prone to error, causing arguments, piling up receipts for samples or do-overs, and sometimes resulting in the decision to "just give up and paint it white". 

This is why I include paint color selection as a part of my architectural services. Having done this many times before, I make it easy and fun for my clients. 


Paint color selection tools of the trade

Here are some things to remember when selecting paint color:

A lot of men are color blind.  One of every ten men have some form of color blindness, while women are rarely affected. There are different severities and types of color-blindness. The most common type is the inability to distinguish red and green. This can be very challenging when looking at various shades of paint colors, as often the only difference between two colors will be the amount of red or green undertone.

All whites are not the same.  If you hold a fan of "whites" at arm's length, you would think they were colors like blue, pink, grey, or yellow. Yet, each of them are considered "white". I have heard the following statements, each of which is a clue that my clients need help, whether they realize it or not: 

  • "The contractor said he has a white that they used before, so we'll just use that." 
  • "I just want white." 
  • "We don't want any color, just an off-white." 
  • "My mother says we should use antique white." 

Complex colors change in different light. Many of the popular brands of paints have a complex color base. This makes the color very rich, whether light or dark. It also affects the color's appearance in different types of light. When you select colors, you should look at them in the type and intensity of light they will be seen in. DO NOT pick your paint colors on the floor of a fluorescent-lit showroom. 

The trickiest colors are green, khaki, and grey.  In my experience, the colors that appear the most different according to the quality and type of light are green, khaki (or camel) and grey. When I select one of these colors, I pull as many samples out of the oversize fan as I can find and pin them all up, either in the intended location or in the closest facsimile of the environment. I look at them several times throughout the day as the light changes, and remove any chip that begins to take on the appearance of another color. Green will tend to shift to brown. Khaki will tend to shift toward either purple or green. Grey will tend to shift to purple or blue.

Be careful with luminous colors.  If you adore "happy colors", remember that a color can be bright without being luminous.  I once had a client who wanted a bright green bedroom, the color of the flesh of a lime. The color she chose was very luminous - meaning that it had a "glow." As a small chip, it was very appealing. But, when the whole room was painted, the color bounced off every wall, making the room so intense that the painters could only be in there for a short period of time before having to step outside to allow their eyes to adjust back to normal. (That room was immediately repainted a soft yellow.)

Color looks more intense on ceilings.  A paint chip with a hint of color will take on the appearance of a strong color when painted on a ceiling. 

Exterior house colors always look lighter than expected.  Selecting exterior house colors is one of the most challenging tasks. Nearly everyone who has chosen their own exterior paint will tell you they wish they'd gone darker. 

The sun is an incredibly powerful light source, even in the Pacific Northwest, and it affects the appearance of color dramatically. In fact, exterior paint always looks significantly lighter than the swatch once on your house.  When you are choosing exterior colors, you should be looking at the darkest colors in the range. If you there is a house in your neighborhood you like, it is well worth knocking on the door to ask what color they used or to ask permission to bring your paint fan with you to compare swatches with their house. 

Consider the items that will go in the room.  Does the furniture have a red or green undertone? Are there things in the room that will contrast too much with the color? Is there something that you want to use as a focal point against the color such as artwork or antiques? Are there things on the ceiling that you don't want to draw attention to? (A color on the bathroom ceiling might sound like a fun idea, but remember that the exhaust fan, ceiling lights, etc. will be more noticeable than they would against a soft white.) 

Avoid trendy colors.  The retailers have a knack for rotating color trends, and today's beautiful green will soon be dated. The exception to this rule is choosing a color that is currently "trendy" but is one that you have ALWAYS loved. If you have loved it your entire life, you probably always will. If it is a new color that you are enjoying, have fun with your towels, bedcovers, or rugs. It is easier to rotate those when you become sick of the color than it is to repaint the room. 

Question the accent wall idea. My theory is that if you want a color but only on one wall, you probably aren't convinced that you like the color - or that you will like it for very long. Here is another opportunity for tablecloths, rugs, towels, etc. to take on that role. A true accent wall uses a contrasting or more saturated color to emphasize the architectural features of a space, not to showcase a fad.

Ask for help. I bring every Benjamin Moore and Devine color created into my client's homes, sparing them the confusion at the paint counter. Rather than looking at tiny strips of five or six shades, we look at 4"x4" swatches of color. My paint kit is organized by the amount of undertone in each color, so it is easy to predict which colors will tend toward red, green, blue, or purple, based upon where the color is located within the stack of each color. I leave these swatches with my clients, ordering replacements for my kit.

Test it out.  After my clients have had some time to look at the color swatches in various lighting over a few days, we select a few to mock-up on the wall. We don't use the little paint pots or pouches unless they are the exact brand AND sheen we intend to use, since both of these factors affect the color's appearance. We normally have mock-ups painted in 12"x12" or 24"x24" squares, in both the brightest and darkest spots of the room.