I am a Painter: choosing color

Choosing a paint color is like buying underwear: it’s personal. Not in a “private” way, but in an individual-preference way. I refuse to buy underwear for you.

That said, I will continue my miniseries on painting (see here for the first installment) by sharing a few tips on choosing paint colors. No two people choose paint colors the same way. In fact, I’ve learned over the years that no two people even see color exactly the same: to Mr. Pax, for example, something may look “red;” to me, “salmon;” and to my father (who happens to be red/green color blind), gray. Truly, colors are a relative matter.

However, I have been amazed by the number of people who come into my home and ask me, “Did you pick out your paint colors? How did you do that? I cannot pick out colors to save my life…”and so forth. Really, it surprises me that some people find it so intimidating, but I hope this encourages you to think otherwise. So, without further ado (I like that phrase, have you noticed? ;), here are a few thoughts on how to pick color.

1. Consider your closet.

Most people wear the colors they like, the colors that work for their skin, eyes, and hair. Put the same thing on your walls! If you know you are a “blue” person, start there. If your closet tends to be full of neutrals, then it’s a safe bet that you’ll be happiest with the same thing on your walls.

2. Use a favorite piece for inspiration.

If you have a fabric, picture, vase, or anything else for that matter that you really love, pull a color from that and go with it. It’s not cheating to simply match a color you already know you like.

3. Allow for inspiration in unexpected places.

That sounds so “outside the box” and liberal of me… Really, here is my case and point:

Since we moved in to this home (over a year ago), this glass-paned door that connects my husband’s office to the guest room / nursery has been covered with an old fleece blanket. I have every intention of finding another solution, of course, but life happens… Anyway, when we replaced the floor in that office and decided that the warm golden brown that we loved in my office looked horrid with the new floors, I was lacking direction. I then realized that I really liked the way the old gray blanket looked with the new floors, and the rest is history. In fact, it was painting the office charcoal gray that inspired this miniseries.

4. Consider how the color complements the adjoining rooms.

I cannot bring myself to paint my entire home the same color; I know some people who love that, but it is simply not my thing. However, that doesn’t mean that your home should feel disjointed. And this principle applies to the most monotonous color schemes as well as the most eclectic. Our first home had a green living room, a blue dining room, a red kitchen, a gray master, and a yellow guest room. It sounds scary, doesn’t it? But it was a tiny little bungalow that needed some life, and the colors, though vibrant and diverse, complemented one another well. In contrast, my current home is almost all grays and blues, but I feel we have significant variety even in that. Thankfully, many paint companies now offer palette collections, where they have 20 or so colors chosen for you, all of which complement each other. So if you’re afraid of how to mix colors, use the resources available to you!

You also are sometimes able to branch out a bit when you keep this in mind. For example, though I tend to be drawn to blues and grays, I loved the warm cafe au lait color in the living room of our last house mostly because of the juxtaposition to the blue gray in the kitchen. Have you noticed that I really like juxtaposition? 😉

5. Take risks.

The beauty of paint is that for most rooms, you can update for a mere $25-$50. In case you haven’t noticed, I am rather frugal, but even I can’t deny that if you absolutely hate something, $25 is not going to break the bank. It’s nothing like taking the risk on recovering furniture or buying a rug.

And in that vein of thinking, remember that you can truly transform a room with new paint. Think about it, $25, entirely new look. Rearrange some furniture, repurpose some things from other rooms of the house, maybe use leftover paint to update a vase or something to echo the color elsewhere in the room… and you’ve got an entirely new look for $25. Wowser (as my just-turned-3-year-old would say), that’s pretty fabulous.

The above tips are all inspirational in nature… below you’ll find some more practical suggestions.

6. Get lots of paint chips. They’re free.

Pick them up. Bring them home. Tape them to the wall. Tape them to the other wall. Look at them in daylight. At night. With lamps on. With lamps off. Get three if you need to and tape them to three different walls to see how the color changes at different angles. Hold it up to your trim. And be sure you leave it up there for at least 24 hours so you can see the different effects of light as the day progresses. I have a bulging manilla envelope full of paint chips I’ve collected over the years. I also write the room name (like “kitchen – Leto house”) on a chip I use so I won’t forget. Who knows, I may want it again some day.

7. Be wise with sample paints.

What on earth does that mean?? You can go crazy buying sample paints. At $3-7 at most paint stores, that seems pretty fabulous, but that can really add up. Wait until you’re 90% sure on a color, or you’ve narrowed it down to only 2, before you buy samples. Then, go crazy. The traditional 12″x12″ square is WAY too small in my opinion. Paint big swatches. On multiple walls. Next to key pieces of furniture, and at all levels. Light in rooms changes so drastically from one area to the next; it’s important to know if your brown wall will actually look pink, for example.

8. Consider the size of the room.

You’ve probably heard that light colors make a room feel bigger, and dark colors make a room feel smaller. Like many things, that’s only partly true. Generally speaking, a lighter color will make a room feel more expansive, but sometimes the same effect (or better) can be achieved with a bright color, too. Try to avoid dark, dull colors, though, as they will probably close in the room a bit. On the other hand, though you can get away with darker colors in larger rooms, it’s also a lot more wall space to consider, which may overwhelm you if your color is too intense.

9. Consider what kinds of light the room receives.

Rooms with lots of natural light will often look cooler (or bluer) than rooms with more artificial light, which will look warmer (or yellower). Lots of sunlight will tend to wash out a color slightly, too, so if you want a very subtle touch of green, for example, make sure it’s not so subtle that it disappears in direct sunlight.

10. Remember that sheen also affects color.

We will talk more about sheen in the next episode of this series, but suffice it to say that it matters. Come back next week to find out why.

11. Have fun!! It’s only paint… 🙂

I hope you found this helpful in some way. Remember to check out Part 1 of this miniseries: How I Roll. And please, if you have any other favorite tips on choosing paint colors, let us know!

Update: Please visit Part 3 of this miniseries: Choosing Sheen

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  2. Love the advise as always…… I’m able choose colours for everyone but myself for some reason.
    I have a small chalet in the woods and it has a forest green metal roof and for the life of me I cannot seem to choose the colours for the walls and window frames outside. Maybe you or a follower can help me with this…
    I’d appreciate this more than you could imagine……. Kim
    If I figure out how to attach a photo, I will do that too, perhaps on Facebook.

    1. I’m so glad you found it helpful, Kim! And I know what you mean – it’s easier to pick colors when you’re not the one living with it. 😉 As you may know, I’m partial to whites and grays; I think they are so versatile! Have you seen my paint color home tour post? Ellie Gray from that one would look beautiful with your roof, and a nice, bright white trim would be lovely. Or you could do the opposite: a white cabin with gray trim (perhaps Ellie Gray or even Dovetail – a slightly richer, warmer, darker gray). I confess I’m not familiar with the styles or climate of Quebec, so my suggestions are based purely on what I think would look cute on your little chalet!

      1. Thank you so very much for sending me such a quick reply.
        I love the colour choices you’ve suggested for the chalet and trim
        for the outside walls and windows.
        I think I’m going with the Ellie Gray on the walls and the white trim around the windows.
        I’m so excited to get going on this project now that I’ve decided which way to go, thanks to you……
        You really have no idea just how much I appreciate your help with this.
        I’ll send a few photos when it’s completed…… many thanks…Kim

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