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How to Choose Paint Colors: 7 No-Fail Tips + 1 Thing NOT to Do

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 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. 

blue bedroom with desk and text overlay that says how to choose paint colors

 

I’ve spent the last ten years decorating our home and really learning from that experience. I’ve also taken 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

shannon behind paint fandeck

In this post, you’ll learn how to choose paint colors for your home interiors, including:

  • living rooms
  • bedrooms
  • bathrooms
  • kitchens

black shiplapped wall with brown kraft paper sign hanging over a cream couch with throw pillows

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 Scheme, 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. 

Related: How to Mix Patterns with Style

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!

Related: How to Decorate with Neutrals

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.

warm paint color will have a base color (undertone) of a warm color, such as yellow or red. 
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 Scheme

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. 

6 squares of colored neutrals to illustrate a monochromatic paint palette

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. 

farmhouse style kitchen open shelves black island used to demonstrate the use of black in the kitchen

In the adjoining living room we have Eider White walls and a white shiplapped fireplace mantel, along with a black accent wall. 

black shiplap wall and neutral decor to show that black is on the wall in the living room that is adjacent to the kitchen

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.

BUT.

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!

dark wood king size bed with white bedding and taupe walls in a north facing room to illustrate the effect of northen exposure

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. 

Related: Color Theory Simplified for Your Home 

blue gray paint swatches laying on a rug, to show undertones at the bottom of each swatch

Choosing Whites

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. 

Related: How to Choose the Right White Paint For Your Home

white paint swatches laying on a carpet to show the difference in white paint undertones

The Right Way to Pick Paint Colors – Quick Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. Then place some of the accents (flooring if it’s not yet laid, furniture, pillows, etc.) and/or your inspiration piece in the room.
  3. Now look at the paint in different lighting at different times of day.
  4. With your whole home color scheme in mind, choose the paint color that looks best in the space with your accents and actual lighting. 

neutral dining room with upholstered chairs and shades of white and taupe to illustrate a good color scheme

Related: How to Use a Color Wheel for Decorating and Choosing Colors That Work

how to choose paint colors pin graphic with fireplace and couch photos to illustrate colors

Have you ever made a paint color mistake? How did you fix it?

I'd love it if you'd share:

I'd love to chat with you in the comments!

Comments

  1. Linda Keefer says

    I have always done this. I actually tell people standing there to take it home check the color. It will even look different outside. They always say thank you i didn’t know that. My problem is my bathroom. I live in an 814 sq foot home. My bathroom is so tiny. I know i have to keep it light. The color in there now i inherented,when i bought the house.

    • Shannon says

      A lot of people don’t know, or get rushed and think it won’t matter. You can keep it light and bright, just bring paint swatches home to look at it the bathroom light.

  2. Kimberly says

    When I worked in a paint store, I always told people to do this. We even had canvas boards that we painted ourselves with the most popular colours on it so that we could bring them over to the natural light coming in from the windows to show customers. I’ve heard of so many horror stories where people either did not listen to the consultants or didn’t ask; walked in, looked at a paint colour, loved in in store, bought it, painted it and then hated it. The other key element to painting is to always choose your paint colour last. There are millions of hues in the world and yet only so many flooring tiles, slats, furniture choices, patterns, etc. but there is a wide variety of colours and manufacturers!

  3. Clara says

    Question! I’m putting beadboard up in my bathroom. I want it painted with flat paint. My remodeler is arguing with me that it needs to be semi-gloss as that’s what’s recommend for bathrooms. I don’t like shiny at all! What’s your opinion?

    • Shannon says

      You can get bathroom paint in just about any finish. The key is to make sure that it’s mold and mildew resistant. I’m with you on not wanting sheen at all. But just keep in mind that if you get flat paint and the beadboard isn’t completely smooth, it may collect dust a bit if the room is damp. Our shiplap is a little rough in spots and those spots are a little trickier to wipe the inevitable dust off of. But I think you can totally get away with flat bathroom paint!

  4. Anne Marie says

    Hi Miss Shannon! This post makes me so happy!! I know we can get in a rush and want to pick a color and slap it on the wall and be in love with the end result! This is a fairy-tale that won’t ever come true! My poor husband know’s I’m up to something when he come’s home to 12 samples taped to the walls and 100 more spread all over every flat surface! It often takes me weeks to finally commit to the right color, only after re-positioning them, staring at them, tilting my head from every corner in the room, just to be sure… We’ll be watching a movie, and he’ll catch me staring at the paint samples on the wall, rather than following the plot on the screen! Such a fun journey!! Now a tip from my husband: Don’t let me pick out paint when I’m pregnant! So many regrets…. lol.

    • Shannon says

      It is a fairy tale, without a happy ending in real life! Oh and I don’t choose colors when I have PMS either. Never like the result! Lol.

  5. Shari Lawrence says

    Thank you so much for your help…and with a swift reply. Now I’m off to look at your posts on your blog!!!

  6. linda says

    Could not agree more!! There are so many hues and shades that look different in the light. My sweet husband repainted all the trim including chair rails because the white was just too yellow.

  7. Cristina says

    Hi! Do you know what’s the paint color of the wall in the photo of the bedroom you show in this post? It really is beautiful. Thanks.

  8. Kim says

    This is PERFECT timing for me…Just starting to decorate a new (to me 🙂 ) home.
    I will definitely use this info!!
    Can you please advise where the beautiful “may the Lord” scroll came from .. geez I love it!
    thank you for all you do!!
    Kim

    • Shannon Acheson says

      Hi, Kim. I’m so glad it’s such perfect timing! Yay! The scroll was from Smallwoods Home but they don’t seem to have it anymore. I’m not sure why, but I’ve put in a request to find out. I’m sorry!

  9. Ivory says

    My-my, this post is so for me. All to often I go to the hardware store, then to the paint department/paint chip strips to choose paint color. In the store, it appears to be perfect, but once I get it home and put the paint on the wall, I just want to cry. Thanks to your tips, I have a new weapon to help me choose the color I am seeking.
    Thanks for sharing, and please stay safe!

Student love

I found my style and was able to bring our small space together by creating a cozy and inviting home...

Danae C.

I loved the lesson on color theory, and also THAT YOU TOLD US EXACTLY WHAT ORDER TO DECORATE IN!

Erica L.

My ah-ha moment was when I realized how much time and money we have spent in the past couple of...

Cheryl P.

I love your easy process to determine my style. I've also learned that my style has changed over the years and seasons...

Sheryl R.

Your explanation of paint colors was the light bulb moment for me! Your explanation would have saved us from painting...

Pat Jensen