White Walls Are For Suckers: How To Choose A Paint Color So You Won’t Hate It

We painted the tiny bathroom a Kermit the Frog green, the kitchen orange, the master bedroom blue, and the living room a pale green.
Publish date:
December 27, 2012
home, painting, colors, paint

White walls are for galleries and rentals.

I lived through white walls in university and many apartments, finally settling into a place where the landlord would buy the paint, as long as we were willing to paint it ourselves. We were allowed to pick the colors, as long as they were a Base 1 or 2 -- so no scarlet and no black.

We painted the tiny bathroom a Kermit the Frog green, the kitchen orange, the master bedroom blue, and the living room a pale green.

The colors were mostly successful. The bathroom was not the greatest -- I could not do my makeup in there because the green gave everything, including my face, an odd cast. The bedroom was too blue. The yellow in what would eventually become my daughter’s room was too orange.

We learned a few things about paint colors. And I’m glad we did.

When we bought our house, painting was near the top of the must-dos. The previous owner smoked a pipe and there was wallpaper in the majority of the rooms. It was disgusting. It also wasn’t livable, and because my husband was at work and I was at home with a toddler, we hired painters. That meant I had to pick colors, and fast.

Our contractor had a deal with Benjamin Moore, so I grabbed paint swatches and started debating colors with my husband. I went to that party armed with a bunch of issues of Canadian House & Home and random design and decorating magazines I grabbed at the grocery store. I had torn one particular page out, which I wish I still had. Some designers gave their favorite tried and true paint colors.

The biggest hit, in my mind, has been Benjamin Moore Persimmon. It was a top pick from that magazine feature in 2006. It’s appeared in one of Benjamin Moore’s 2012 palettes. It’s this mix of red, pink and brown that works with so many other colors that it’s practically a neutral.

And that, in my experience, has been the key to living with color. You can pick almost anything as long as it has depth to the tone. A primary color is great for a pop art feel, and would be awesome in a modern space that had a feature wall (that concept is best used on a wall that’s a standalone between spaces or at the end of a space, to draw attention to it).

The living room is Jamestown Blue, another Benjamin Moore color from the Historical Color collection, and another one of those designer top picks. This range is popular for heritage architectural projects and provides a good range of colors for exteriors as well as interiors. It’s a good source for some excellent grays. Gray is super hot for 2013.

Jamestown Blue also works well with pops of yellow (see my print?) and red, which allows a pretty sedate color to have some fun. It also means I can throw red throw pillows on my couch and feel like I got the red couch of my dreams instead of the practical (but comfy) brown one of my reality.

The powder room (it is too tiny to be called anything else) is Muskoka Dusk. My husband picked this one out. I said I wanted a grayish purple, and this is what he came back with. Your mileage may vary in letting your significant other pick out paint colors.

The colors I’ve picked here, and that I’ve been happiest with, have been slightly muted but with a lot of depth. This works well with lots of natural light (which the upper floors in my house have). The play of light on the walls allows you to enjoy the depth in a complex paint color. You can judge the depth a color will have by looking at how it’s mixed -- the more colors it takes to make up the final product, the more the color will shift as the light changes.

Most companies give the key to the mix on the chip -- you’ll see a code with letters (B, Y, G, R, etc.) and numbers, which indicate the amount of pigment is being added. The base is also a good indicator. A Base 1 is for pale colors and appears to be an opaque white on its own. A Base 3 is for deep colors, and is pretty much transparent to let the pigments shine through. You may have experienced the wonder of a Base 3 paint if you’ve tried red. The first coat is often some shocking shade of magenta. Red paint works best with a gray or tinted primer. Be prepared to do several coats before you reach the color you picked from a chip.

And here is where I am going to say do as I say and not as I do. I pretty much grabbed colors and went with them. I didn’t pick out fabric first and then choose a paint color. My furnishings happen to be neutral, and I picked out curtain fabric from paint chips, which is my way of making my life difficult. It’s much easier to get a custom-blended paint to match a fabric you love. Though it is possible to design and order your own fabrics, I don’t know if they can guarantee a color match.

When you think you have THE color, or at least a small pool narrowed down, get a large swatch or one of those mini pots and stick it (or paint it) on the wall for at least 24 hours. You want to see how it works with your space, including your current lighting design and any natural light. You might love the color and hate the way it looks with your current lighting. Changing lighting can get expensive so you might want to rethink the color. You can have a gray with so many different tones behind it (warm, cool, green, purple, brown, yellow) that you’ll never run out of options.

As a note, though, if you love a color in natural light and find your lighting washes it out or gives it a strange cast, try a bulb with a different temperature. Most bulbs are available in warm and cool versions, and one could look great when the other looks awful.

I’ve just raved about muted colors, but brights have their place. In my house, they have their place in the basement.

Our basement does not get a lot of natural light, and what does manage to sneak in the windows is pretty gray. This time, we did what you’re supposed to and found inspiration in an ad and picked the colors from it. I know the colors were Glidden, and the lime green is called Hot Pepper, but their site is not the best for finding colors. In this case, a bright and not particularly complex tone stands up to the fluorescent lighting (not my first choice, but drop ceilings limit your options). That blue is on the wall leading down from the staircase. The entire staircase, including the ceiling, is that blue.

As for trim and ceilings, I like regular old white ceiling paint and white or off-white for trim.

Here’s the thing with painted ceilings. If you have higher than average ceilings, fancy moldings or great details (beams, for instance), use them to your advantage. A deep color on a high ceiling will bring it down and make the space cozier. My ceilings, though, are a pretty standard eight feet (and in the basement, slightly less than that) and I find the white gives the color something to bounce off while not intruding.

That’s also why the trim throughout the house is white (it’s Benjamin Moore Sugar Cookie, and it has the worst description, including the word "buttery"). There are so many options for white that it’s worth taking your time to consider how it will work with both the paint colors and any flooring (my trim is warm to tie it to the wood floors in the house).

To sum up, the best piece of decorating advice I ever received was from my junior high art teacher. I was painting a mural (it featured a dolphin, because it was 1994) and there were abstract columns in the background. Mr. Ribeiro told me I should stick to three colors, two warm and one cool or two cool and one warm. He was right -- attempts with more colors were awful.

My interpretation of the rule in my living room means sticking to blue as the base color and adding pops of red and yellow. In the basement, the green and blue are offset with a plummy purple (and all the other accessories are black and white). In my son’s room (I’d show you pictures, but it looks like a Hot Wheels and Lego warehouse exploded in there), it’s orange with red and blue accessories.

It works, and it keeps things from being too monochromatic. If I wanted monochromatic (and to make myself insane trying to keep them clean), I’d have white walls.