In this post: Have you ever selected a paint color and put it on the wall, only to hate it? Here’s the how to choose paint colors so you love the results every time. Plus, the one thing you should NEVER do when picking your paint.
It can seem like a huge task to choose a paint color. Especially if you’ve ever spent hours rolling paint onto the wall, only to realize it’s just not the right color at all.
I often say, “it’s just paint” and it can be painted over. But I do feel your pain of time and money lost because I’ve chosen the wrong paint color in the past too.
So, how do you choose the right paint color like a pro? By learning one common mistake almost everyone makes, plus a few designer tricks for how to choose paint colors for your home interior.
I’ve spent the last ten years decorating our home and really learning from that experience. I’ve also taken 270 hours of interior design classes to add “head knowledge” to my practical knowledge. I’ve learned how to avoid paint color mistakes and today I’d like to share my best paint color tips with you. So that you can choose paint colors confidently in your home.
In this post, you’ll learn how to choose paint colors for your home interiors, including:
- living rooms
7 No-Fail Tips for How to Choose Paint Colors
1. Don’t Choose Paint First!
I know it sometimes seems like you should choose your paint color first because painted walls make up a lot of the decor space in your home. But it’s far easier to choose one of thousands of paint colors to go with your other decor, than it is to find decor to go with a paint color.
2. Use an Inspiration Piece
So, if you don’t choose your paint color first, what do you do?
Well, you use an inspiration piece to draw your colors from.
In How to Create a Whole Home Color Palette, I told you that the best hack for choosing your colors – including paint colors – is to pull them from a multi-colored sofa, a bedspread, a piece of art or even a piece of fabric that you love.
3. Go with Neutrals for Walls
If you love color, you may want to use bold, beautiful pops of color on your walls. But, for most of us it’s best to keep the walls neutral and use those bold pops of color to accents and accessories.
I recommend going with neutral walls for a few reasons:
- If your walls are neutral, your attention is on the furniture and accent pieces rather than on the walls. Which is definitely what you want!
- If your walls are neutral, you can change out the accent pieces easily if you change your mind on the colors you like. It does happen!
- Neutral-colored walls also make it really easy to swap out your decor with the seasons, or even just add holiday and seasonal touches.
- Medium toned neutral walls are good for families, because they hide scuffs and dirt quite well!
4. Understand Undertones
The reason your walls may not look like you envisioned them after painting them, is because all paint colors are made up of other colors and have something called an undertone that is either warm or cool.
A warm paint color will have a base color (undertone) of a warm color, such as yellow or red.
A cool paint color will have a base color (undertone) of a cool color, like blue, green or grey.
5. Use the Largest Test Swatch Possible & Test At Home, With Accurate Lighting
After you’ve chosen a few possible paint colors, pick up the largest paint swatches that your store has and bring them home. Or get sample-sized testers and paint them onto bristol boards so you can move them around your space.
Look at the large samples in all kinds of light, at different times of day, in different parts of the room. Look at them next to the couch, the rug, and the art.
Lighting will affect how your paint colors look in your home, and may even make the same color look different in one room than the next. The larger the swatch, the easier it will be to determine which paint color looks best in your space.
- South-facing rooms tend to have slightly warmer light, due to the sun coming in all day. Which means that the natural lighting will be a yellow-white light and may wash out colors, at least a little. Even still, most paint colors can work in a room with southern exposure, but a cooler color may be preferred to balance the yellower lighting.
- North-facing rooms will have a cooler, blue or grey natural lighting. For these spaces, you can use a cool color, but it may seem even cooler and more blue-grey and chilly than it would in another room. A warm paint color is preferable in a room with northern exposure.
- East- and west-facing rooms will have either warm or cool lighting, depending on the time of day. So, you could use either warm or cool paint colors in rooms with eastern and western exposure.
6. Choose the Right Paint Type – Paint Sheens
Another thing that affects how your paint color will look is the sheen. In general, the higher the sheen the easier it is to keep clean. Unfortunately, the higher the sheen, the more it will show imperfections in a space. So, if you’re trying to hide any flaws in your walls, go with a lower sheen.
- Gloss will be highly wipeable and easiest to clean, but is way too shiny for walls. Gloss is good for baseboards, trim and sometimes cabinets.
- Semi-gloss will be almost as easily cleaned, with significantly less shine, although it’s not good on walls in large spaces. Semi-gloss is great for trim, cabinets and high moisture areas, like bathrooms.
- I would suggest a satin finish for use on walls higher traffic areas like hallways and kids rooms. Satin finish paint is also good for bathrooms, because it’s wipeable.
- Eggshell will be a little more durable than flat or matte paint, so choose it for spaces that see some traffic and might get a little abuse, like living rooms or dining rooms.
- Flat or matte is best in rooms in which the walls won’t really be touched much, like master bedrooms.
7. Create a Whole Home Color Palette
While you don’t necessarily want to paint your entire home interior all one color, if you want cohesive flow in your home, you really don’t want to be choosing paint colors in isolation or one room at a time with no plan either. You need a whole home color palette. A whole-home color palette will give you guidelines for the overall colors in your home, while giving you the creativity to use those colors in different ways in different rooms.
For example, in our house, we have shades of white, greige and black.
But we use those colors in varying proportions in each room.
For instance, in our kitchen we have Eider White on the Walls, Pure White on the trim and range hood (which happens to also very closely match the white Ikea cabinet doors), and black on the island.
In the adjoining living room we have Eider White walls and a white shiplapped fireplace mantel, along with a black accent wall.
Same paint colors, different placement and proportions. And you can do the same sort of thing in your home with your whole home color scheme.
How Many Paint Colors Should Be in a House?
Well, that depends. The general idea with a whole home color scheme is to have:
- 1 white,
- 1 neutral,
- and 3 other colors
- (plus woods and metals)
Those don’t necessarily have to be paint colors, but rather colors in general. So, the big total is 5 colors, although you can have shades and tints of your main colors as paint colors too.
(Kids’ rooms don’t necessarily have to be included in your whole home color scheme, since they tend to be brighter/more colorful and are quite often based around their own theme.)
What is the Best Paint Color for a Small Living Room?
The best paint color for any small space (living room, bedroom, dining room, kitchen) is one that makes it feel larger and more open. Lighter colors tend to make a room seem larger because they appear to be receding away from you in your mind’s eye. So, consider white, cream, a light greige or even lightened version of your favorite colors like green or blue. You can totally break this guideline for small rooms like bathrooms though!
Conversely, if you want to make a large space feel more cozy, try using warm, darker colors.
The 1 Thing You Should Never Do When Choosing Paint Colors
So, now that you know the best designer tricks for choosing paint colors, there’s one more very important thing that you need to know. Something you should not do. It’s so important that I need you to promise you’ll never do this again…
There’s a familiar story I hear all the time. Someone goes to the paint store/hardware store wanting to buy paint for a weekend DIY room makeover they plan to start the next day. They have a general idea of what color they want (blue, green, red, yellow), but they’re not exactly sure of the paint color. So, in they march to the paint department to look at paint chips. After some hemming and hawing at all the options, they choose a color they love and get a gallon or two mixed. They’re so excited to get that paint up on the walls.
Oh, the but.
But when they get home and start painting, the paint doesn’t quite look like it did at the store. Something is very off.
There’s a reason for that…they broke the biggest rule you really NEED to follow 100% of the time when choosing paint colors.
Do you want to know the one thing you should NEVER do when choosing paint colors?
Do NOT choose paint colors at the store!
For the love of Pete, just don’t do it!
Why You Should Never Choose a Paint Color at the Store
Paint is made up of different colors, which create undertones, which look different under different lighting conditions.
Remember the blurb above about undertones and our lesson on color theory? (For all the color theory details you need to know, click/tap here for a refresher.)
When you or I pick a paint color at the store, it’s usually under yellow fluorescent lighting, right? Well, that florescent lighting changes the way all paint colors look to our eyes and how we see the undertones.
It simply will not look the same at home. EVER!
Understanding Paint Swatches
Those lovely long paint swatches you get at the hardware store are super handy for choosing paint colors. But only if you understand them!
Choosing Coordinating Colors
Paint swatches generally have 3 or more colors all in a row. Each swatch is grouped according to color temperature.
So, on one swatch you will have several shades of a color that is either warm or cool. One swatch will NEVER have both warm and cool colors on it.
The more muted the color on the swatch, the more grey has been added. If you stay with the same saturation level and color temperature, you can easily coordinate colors in your space.
- For example, using the swatches below, you could choose a couple of colors from one swatch for a nice, soothing monochromatic look.
- Or you could choose, say the third color down on two different swatches. Doing that, you’d be keeping with the same saturation level, which would provide a lovely coordinating color scheme.
To choose whites, stay in the same color temperature zone (warm or cool).
A white near cool colors on a swatch compliment cool colors, while a white near warm colors on a swatch compliment warm colors.
- Keep cool with cool and warm with warm for a monochromatic or analogous color scheme.
- Or if you’re using a complimentary color scheme, mix warm and cool.
The Right Way to Pick Paint Colors – Quick Step-by-Step Instructions
- Bring paint swatches home with you. Tape the swatches to the wall. Or buy a sample pot and try a few shades on the wall in the room you want to paint.
- Then place some of the accents (flooring if it’s not yet laid, furniture, pillows, etc.) and/or your inspiration piece in the room.
- Now look at the paint in different lighting at different times of day.
- With your whole home color scheme in mind, choose the paint color that looks best in the space with your accents and actual lighting.