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How to Pick the Best Paint Colors (on the first try)

Part 1 - The Key

Have you ever picked a color, whether on your person or in your home, and then realized that it just isn’t the color you needed it to be? You’re not alone! Color selection can be challenging to right and costly to get wrong. There are a million tips and tricks out there but there’s just one key to getting it right. The key is understanding color and color undertones.

As you can see from the images above, blue isn’t just blue. It can be any number of shades of blue. Obvious, right? But think about it… When you looked at those shades of blue, did you ask yourself how they are different, or just accept it? We see many colors and many shades every day, but we don’t always think about color beyond the basic senses. Looking beyond what we initially see is the secret to understanding color.

To understand a color, you need to understand that it is made from a mixture of primary colors. Red, Yellow, Blue, Black, and White. Primary color mixtures are responsible for all the shades and varieties of color we love.

Mixing primary colors can also result in the creation of ‘undertones.’ Undertones are shades of color that exist in addition to the main color we are looking at. For example, blue with a hint of green or red with a hint of purple. Other times, undertones can be very subtle. Think gray with an unexpected hint of purple. Which is why picking a “neutral” paint color can be so challenging.

Let me share a practical example. I’m not a big makeup person- so, in the past, I’ve purchased foundation without thinking about it too much. I tried to match the color of my skin (dark in summer and light in winter) and figured that would be enough. It wasn’t. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a lady who looked like she was wearing a ‘makeup mask’ but that’s about how my foundation looked every time I’d try to wear it. It was frustrating! But I wore it so infrequently that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about fixing it.

One day my husband and I were discussing color. For some reason the conversation reminded me of my foundation woes. I realized that I’d missed a crucial factor: my skin isn’t a prime color. In fact, everyone’s skin is full of differing shades and undertones. Just like “neutral” paint colors. It turns out that the warm-toned foundation I had been trying to use would never have looked natural because the undertone of my skin made it look yellow. I seized the moment and was able to find a color that worked with my cool blue undertones. It matched perfectly and I haven’t had the ‘makeup mask’ issue since. This is a perfect example of how subtle undertones can create dramatically different results.

Understanding the undertone of your color is important!

It isn’t always easy to identify an undertone. Different lighting or subtle shades can throw things off. So take your time, find a primary color in the tone (Masstone) you’re looking at and compare them. Think about the color temperature.

Part 2 - The Tools

Now that you’ve thought about undertones and masstones you’re a lot better off, but probably not ready to make an informed choice. Colors are tricky and sometimes theoretical understanding isn’t quite enough. So let’s talk about a process and tools that will help you find the perfect color.

Start with a paint wheel. Most people don't know this, but you can borrow those awesome fan decks from Sherwin Williams stores just by asking! You’ll most likely be starting with neutral colors unless you’re trying to find a dramatic accent color.

Fan that deck out and start narrowing it down to your favorite 2-3 strips. Remember that you don’t want to pick something too bright or saturated for a large area because it can be overwhelming.

Each color strip shows different shades of the same color. Now is the time to take note of the subtle, hidden colors that can appear when lighting changes or contrasting colors are near-by. Often, neutrals (especially grays) get a bad reputation for having tricky undertones. The gray will look great on a small swatch, but once it's up on a whole wall it can suddenly look blue, green, purple, or even pink. Looking at the bottom color of the paint strip can give you a better idea of your paint’s undertones.

Now that you’ve found your 2-3 color strips, get sample pots of your chosen colors. Typically these are only a few dollars and could save you the cost of buying gallons of the wrong color.

You could paint on your wall at this point, but I recommend holding off. Instead, paint two large poster boards for each color. Make sure your poster boards are at least 8X10” and don’t forget to label them with each color!

Use the boards, instead of your walls, for two reasons: First, they give you the ability to move a large color sample around the room. This is important because colors will look different on different walls due to lighting and shadows throughout the room. Second, especially if you're making a dramatic change, you want to be sure you're comparing your new color to the parts of the room that are staying – the trim, the flooring, etc.

Hang the boards around the room. You’ll want to live with them for at least 24 hours and be sure to look at them in all the different lighting conditions that room gets – early morning light, artificial lights on and off, shades open and closed, evening and night. Give yourself plenty of time to see the color before moving the boards to another spot.

Remember that you do not want to compare your new color to the color that's going away. For example, putting a blue/gray up against a peach or yellow might cause the blue to read too bright, or too cold. However, if you only compare it to the wood floor and white trim that are staying, you might discover that it's the perfect shade of blue. You can put a larger piece of poster board behind your sample board if you’re having trouble isolating your new color.

It goes without saying that you want to select the color that looks best on the majority of your walls. I know there are a lot of websites and Facebook groups for design hobbyists that have members touting “the perfect gray” or “the perfect greige” or whatever color. Although I don't discount these places as a starting point for narrowing down your color search, I would never make a final decision on color without first going through the process above. There are just too many variables with lighting and materials that you can't know until you see a color in your space.

I hope this process will be of help to you. I’ve used it for many years now and it really works. A little extra thought and time can save you loads of money in finding the right paint color for your next project. Give it a try next time you need to choose a color...or give me a call and we’ll go through it together!

Your Interior Design Pro



Although many lighting variables can’t be changed, you can change your home’s artificial lighting. Consider swapping out your light bulbs if you experience extreme variation in color between natural and artificial light. My next blog post will be all about lighting, but in the meantime, here’s a quick graphic to help you out:

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