How to Choose Paint Colors

Paint color is one of the most fundamental elements of a room, yet it tends to be one of the most anxiety-producing selections. What color should I paint my kitchen? Is that grey, or is it actually blue? What color will best complement my custom upholstery? These are all questions that we are frequently asked by our clients. In truth, there is no one-size-fits all approach to choosing interior paint colors. As with any choice related to home, the decision should be based on personal preference and individual aesthetic vision.

There are, however, simple ways to achieve a certain look or specific goal by using color in intentional ways. There are also easy-to-live-with hues such as warm and cool-toned neutral wall colors that are perfect for those who are hesitant to commit to something a bit more bold, or for those who like to switch up their decor frequently.

So you’re ready to get out your roller, but you’re not sure where to start? In this article, we’ll cover the basics of choosing paint colors and address clients’ frequently asked questions.

What Paint Colors Make Rooms Look Bigger? 

One question we often hear often from our city-dwelling clients is about what paint colors make rooms look bigger. For those designing for a tighter room or for those with unique ceiling lines, this question is for you. When thinking about how to make a room “feel bigger,” what we’re really talking about is how to enhance our concept of space or amplify depth perception. Fortunately, there are great paint colors for small spaces on all ends of the color wheel. 

Light and Bright

Small bathroom with light paint color
Photo: Joyelle West.

For small spaces, white is a perennial favorite for its ability to offer a light, clean, and airy feel. White also reflects light sources, causing a receding effect that helps make a space feel larger than it actually is. It’s the favored choice of galleries and museums for a reason; it does not compete with the varied palettes of paintings that adorn their walls.

While white is a go-to hue, there are endless color variations, some with warm tones and some with cool tones. For those looking for something a little less obvious, try a shade warmer, like a cream or antique white.

Rich, Dark Hues

Powder room with dark paint color
Photo: Joyelle West.

In choosing paint colors for small spaces, don’t discount dark shades like a rich navy blue or deep forest green. It may seem counterintuitive, but rich, dark hues like jewel tones and slate greys can provide the illusion of shadow, which can subsequently offer a greater sense of depth in a space. Deep, dark colors can also serve up intrigue or add a little drama to a space, like a powder room. This mercurial grey from our Wellesley New Traditional project is one of our favorite saturated shades.

How Light Affects Color 

When choosing paint colors, it is important to take into consideration how colors will render at different times of day, and how they will live among different types of lighting solutions. Both natural and artificial light sources can impact perception of a shade, so understanding how a color will appear in different lighting permutations is important to know before you start priming.

Natural Light Sources

Sunny breakfast nook with light paint color and abundant natural light

In choosing paint colors for rooms with lots of natural light, like a kitchen, it’s important to bear all light sources in mind. Natural light sources — like sunlight from a window — will change dramatically over the course of a day. Consider how your color choice will look against strong early morning light or in late-afternoon glow.

Artificial Light Sources

The effect of artificial light sources (recessed lighting, sconces, lamps, etc.) on paint color will also change depending on the type of bulb you choose. Incandescent bulbs, for example, will offer far greater warmth than a standard LED (light-emitting diode) bulb, though you can purchase warmer or cooler LEDs. Other types of bulbs include fluorescents, halogens, and compact-fluorescent lights (CFLs), each offering a different effect on color perception. 

Types of Paint Finishes

Beyond the shade you choose, paint finishes can also impact the appearance of a wall color. In fact, there are five different types of paint finishes to choose from, with several other variations available depending on the brand of paint you choose. As a general rule of thumb, the glossier your paint finish is, the more durable the coat will be, and the more matte your paint finish is, the more uniform your appearance will be.

Flat Paint / Matte Finish Paint

What is a flat paint finish? When we talk about “flat” paint, we refer to a type of paint finish that does not reflect light. The resulting effect is a more flaw-forgiving, uniform surface. Flat paint finish is an excellent choice for low-traffic rooms and ceilings. Similarly, matte finish paint offers the same level of forgiveness and uniform appearance as flat paint finish, but offers slightly greater durability. As with flat finish, matte finish paint is an excellent option for bedrooms, formal living rooms, and other low-traffic areas of the home. 

Eggshell Paint Finish

Just like its namesake, eggshell paint finish offers low sheen and a smooth, uniform finish. Moving across the spectrum of paint finishes, as the level of sheen increases, so does the paint’s durability. This makes eggshell a good fit for spaces with moderate traffic flow, like hallways and family rooms. 

Satin Finish

Commonly used for both interior and exterior surfaces, satin finish paint is considered one of the most versatile, multi-purpose finishes. The effect of satin paint is pearl-like, offering moderate sheen — some light reflection, but not too glossy — while offering protection against a home’s everyday wear-and-tear. Satin finish is a wonderful choice for playrooms, children’s bedrooms, and trim.

Semi-Gloss Paint

Easy to clean and resistant to moisture, semi-gloss paint, with its high-sheen finish, is a natural choice for spaces prone to moisture like bathrooms, kitchens, and doorways. Scuffs and stains tend to clean easier with semi-gloss finish than they do on a more matte finish. 

Gloss Paint Finish

Offering the highest level of shine, high-gloss or gloss paint finish provides a polished look for outdoor accents like shutters and trim, and it offers the easy-to-care-for benefits of satin and semi-gloss finishes, like durability and resistance to moisture.

Best White Paint Colors

White paint colors will never go out of fashion as a room color, and so, we’re sharing a few of our favorite shades of white that we frequently turn to when designing client spaces. Some of the best white paint colors we use skew warmer and some have cooler undertones, but all offer a fresh, clean feel for crisp, white walls. 

Best white paint colors

Best Gray Paint Colors

Gray paint colors are also a wildly popular neutral shade for a variety of spaces: living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and more. Both Farrow & Ball and Benjamin Moore offer a variety of versatile hues, both warmer and cooler grays. These are a few of the best gray paint colors, and those we frequently turn to when designing client homes.

Best gray paint colors

Choose a Color Scheme

In deciding how to choose paint colors for your space, the easiest way to narrow down your choice is to select a larger palette from which to work, and then to choose a hue from one of your featured color families. Look to the patterns of fabrics featured in your space — even the smallest detail could offer the perfect color option for your wall paint color. 

Once you’ve identified hues from a color family, be sure to pull as many samples as you can. Select a few options to work with, and bring home small quantities of each to paint directly on your wall. Observe how the hue changes during different times of day, and how it looks with your lighting system, and once you’re satisfied with the result, go ahead and take the plunge.

The good thing about choosing wall color? Even if you discover that you’re unhappy with the color you’ve chosen in the end, you can always paint over it. 

Additional Resources: Elle Decor