Hues Clues: Choosing Color
How to make confident color choices when painting a room
Is there any home improvement project more fraught with anxiety and indecision than choosing paint colors for a room? Confronted with literally thousands of choices (with names ranging from Spirit Whisper to Dead Salmon to Grandma’s Sweater), DIYers looking to make bold statements with dramatic color combinations in their homes may find themselves overwhelmed and underinformed when it comes to knowing which ones will work.
Where to Start
That blank slate of four empty walls you’re staring at might not actually be so blank. What kind of flooring do you have? Is it wood? Tile? What kind of cabinetry or other fixed elements are in the room? What architectural style is your home? These are the first things to take into consideration says local color consultant Teresa Tullio, who has helped thousands of architects, designers and residential clients navigate the color wheel (she’s even developed her own certification program for industry professionals).
“You wouldn’t want to do a Tuscan villa paint scheme on a Cape Cod–style house; that would just look wrong,” she says.
Nor is it a matter of just picking your favorite colors or the shades you like to wear. “If you have favorite colors, you can work those in with art and accessories. The walls are intended to be backdrops for everything else—artwork, furniture, mirrors. The colors are not supposed to be the end all of the room; you don’t want someone to walk into your house and say, ‘Wow, that’s a purple room you have.’”
The function of the room also helps to guide you; for instance, stimulating colors like red and orange might be great for an exercise room, not so much for a bedroom. “Being in a red room is like having two or three cups of coffee; that’s the effect on your body, so it’s not a good idea in a bedroom,” Teresa says.
The Weird Science of Color
Humans are hardwired to react to certain colors in a particular way. Throw into the mix our individual emotional experiences with colors (from favorite team colors to the blue bedroom you absolutely hated as a kid), and you have a very complex puzzle to deal with.
One rule Teresa says to never break: Always keep the color palette moderate. Understimulating or overstimulating colors and high-contrast combinations can literally cause health issues, she says. “A black-and-white room looks very photogenic in a magazine, but we don’t typically do high contrast because it causes headaches and heart problems. And understimulating colors—if everything is neutral beiges and whites—will cause the same problems, it just takes longer.”
Another key element to consider is light and how it interacts with your colors. Be sure to sample your colors under both natural light and with whatever source of lighting is in the room, because you may end up with a different color once the sun goes down. For instance, a wall painted in a red-based color could read green once lit by a fluorescent, energy-saving bulb.
On the back of paint swatches you’ll also find a number that represents the light reflectance value (LRV) of that particular color. The higher the number, the lighter, more reflective the color. “The most comfortable colors fall in a range of 45 to 60 LRV,” Teresa says.
Understanding undertones is another important tactic to creating a successful color scheme. There may be 250 shades of beige, but there are only four undertones in paint and textiles: red, blue, green and yellow. Where people often make a mistake, Teresa says, is not taking into account how color affects adjacent colors.
“If I have a beige carpet that has a pinkish cast to it—a red undertone—I’m not going to put anything that has a yellow undertone on the wall. The yellow on the wall will make the carpet look like a Band-Aid color and the carpet will make the wall color look dingy,” she says. “It’s very much a science.”
When to Throw in the Color Towel
If it stops being a fun, engaging experience, call it a day and bring in a pro. “In 60 minutes, a trained color consultant can give you a color map of your house; everything is going to work, no testing or swatches, and they never have to come back,” Teresa says. And it’s cheaper than couples’ counseling.
Surprising Paint Color Combos to Try
Now that we’ve walked you through the ins and outs of choosing color paints and accents for your home, check out our guide of 8 Surprising Color Combos to Try in Your Home to get you started, whether it be different paint colors, or the way wall colors work with other featured colors on accents, accessories and more.