how to choose a paint color

how to choose a paint color

We have all been at the paint swatch area, staring at different colors, grabbing a handful of swatches, and then finally choose the color we think will work.  Only to put it on our walls and have it look less than ideal.  What is up with that?!

Here is how to take the guesswork out of choosing a paint color:

how to choose a paint color

One word: LIGHT.

My educational background is in film and photography.  I have spent more than half of my life (at this point) looking at color through the eyes of a colorist. I am an expert at how to correct color photographs, and work with all types light to best achieve the image I want.  This knowledge has come in more than useful when choosing a paint color!  BUT I have, more than once, not been happy with my choice when a hasty decision was made for a paint color.

how to choose a paint color


Here are a few things to consider when choosing a paint color for your room.
Natural Light

First, are you receiving a lot of natural light, and if so, what is happening outside?  If outside your window is a large concrete patio then the light that will bounce off of that patio, assuming it is white/gray, will not have much of an impact on your paint color.  If you have a grassy area outside, then you will have to account for the possibility of cooler, green shadows being on your walls.  There are certain paint colors that you should always consider compensating color casts for… anything in the gray family, likely go warmer to avoid having an accidental periwinkle or blue room.  Look for a gray with a magenta or warmer undertone to neutralize the likelihood of green or blue shadows.  White paint has a tendency to absorb blue shadows and going a bit warmer here, assuming you have skylights bringing cool light in or greenery through windows being bounced in.

how to choose a paint colorArtificial Light
Let’s dive a bit deeper into color theory… Have you heard of the Kelvin scale?

Next, artificial light sources will play a role in how your eye sees a color.  In color theory, we measure the color of light by degrees Kelvin.  The lower the degree K the warmer the light is and the higher the number, the cooler it is. Perhaps backwards from what a non-photo/light nerd would assume. In the photo below, the color temp furthest to the light is likely 1000°K and cooling down to 10,000°K by the furthest to the right.

how to choose a paint color

For example, natural daylight is 5600° but that is fairly cool and most people don’t love that light temperature in their home. I tend to prefer around 4000° which is, in my nerdy eyes, a nice neutral light and not too cool, but also not warm.  My preference in in color temp is not what the majority of people prefer, go figure. In my experience, more people prefer a moody warm room in the hours in which artificial light sources are being utilized.

I tend to separate my light sources into two categories and will not have them on at the same time:

I use my 4000° for task lighting, think kitchen prep in the winter months, this keeps paint color looking pretty natural.  My accent, moody, incandescent lighting will get closer to that 2800° but will only be on a low dim for evenings in which maybe no other light source is on.

Other light sources and their temperatures:

Candlelight is around 1800°K, sky light is around 10,000° K and shady light is a bit warmer than that, around 8000° K.

Taking your preference into consideration, and what you know about natural light, you now have a bit more to consider when choosing your paint color.  If it is a room that you will mostly be using when artificial light will be turned on, then you may not want to compensate with warmer undertones. If there aren’t many windows in the room, or a bedroom, TV room that will mostly be utilized in the evening, you could want to go more neutral or cooler than what you see under the lights in the paint swatch department.

Let’s look at tile, materials, and upholstery

Lastly, consider what colors you’ll likely be adding to the room.  I know, this seems like a duhhh, Mary, that is what I would consider first.  But hear me out.  Certain pieces of upholstery can look dingy or have their color skewed if the paint color doesn’t compliment.  Often times, when I work with clients, I will hold off until the end of our conceptualization to choose a paint color.  We should have the main components of the space finalized before we start looking at colors.

mid century modern walnut kitchen toledo interior designer

Photo by Jordan Powers (www.jordanpowers.com)

For example, we used a lot of warm, green tile in Miner Park Modern’sMiner Park Kitchen kitchen who also has south facing windows into a lush backyard, for this reason, I suggested Sherwin Williams Alabaster for the walls.  Sherwin Williams describes this white as: “When you want the brightness of a white without sacrificing a warm coziness, try this soft, warm but balanced white. And turn up the peaceful”  It plays well with the color warm colors in the room while also helping to neutralize greenery from the grass and trees outdoors, in application, it doesn’t look nearly as warm as it does in the other rooms in the house using the same white… for simplicity sake, I typically choose the same white throughout a home, to make touch ups in the future easy.

mid century modern walnut kitchen toledo interior designer

Photo by Jordan Powers (www.jordanpowers.com)

In the end, my hack is working with a designer and then utilizing the 8″x10″ paint sheet samples and placing them in various places of a room.  This will help tremendously in seeing how light factors into your wall color.

Please let me know if this was helpful!


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