Choosing Paint

Finding the Right Wall Color

 Getting the paint color right in a room is worth trial, error and agony, because it’s the foundation for all the design decisions that will follow. Plus, having the wrong color on your walls is like living with a permanent hangover. You’d better love it. Here’s how to get it right:


  • Understand that color is fickle. It changes depending on your light. What looks mustard in Las Vegas can look like putty in New York. A wall color that looks great in your friend’s house could flop in yours. Don’t go just from the paint chip, which is actually ink not paint.
  • When you decide on a general color, say wheat, or robin’s egg blue, or marigold, get several quarts to test. Some companies, including Ralph Lauren, sell little test bags of color, which are cheaper than quarts.
  • Before buying test quarts, decide on your sheen. Satin or high-gloss paints emphasize the architectural elements of woodwork and still hold up to frequent washing so are a good choice for woodwork, including doors, windows and trim. Semi gloss finishes work well in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms and mudrooms because they offer protection against moisture and an easy-to-clean surface. Eggshell finishes are good for bedrooms and play rooms because they are durable and washable. Matte finishes have no sheen, so are sophisticated solutions for more formal living areas, such as living rooms and dining rooms. Though higher sheens are easier to clean, I tend toward the lowest sheen that’s still functional because I’d rather repaint than live with shine.
  • Test the paint in the room where it will go. Look at the test colors at different times of day. I use 99-cent disposable sponge brushes to apply two coats of each color to large scraps of drywall. Ideally, test paint on large (roughly 16” x 16”) pieces of drywall the same texture as your walls. You can get these for just a few dollars (sometimes for free) at your home improvement store. This beats painting test patches on your walls for several reasons. Test patches on the wall can ghost through the final paint and haunt you for years. Using panels lets you move the colors around so you can see them in different lights, on different walls. Panels also let you place carpet candidates near the panels, to see how they look together.
  • Using paint with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds) is environmentally friendlier, and doesn’t cost much more. Although they sometimes go on a little runnier, they won’t give you a headache from fumes.
  • Special effects. Play with the many textures and washes available. They’re easy to apply (really), and can add loads of character.
  • Don’t forget the ceiling. Some say leaving a ceiling (called lids in the biz) white makes it seem higher. I think it makes them look ignored. You don’t have to match the walls, but do tie them in. Try a shade or two lighter.
  • TIP. A reader of my syndicated column gave me this excellent idea: On the back of your light switches, which you remove when painting, write the brand, color and sheen of the paint, alongside a dollop of the paint itself. That way, when you go to touch up the room, you’ll know exactly the paint you need. This is especially helpful if you use various shades throughout your home.


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