Answers to All Your Color Conundrums

How to tackle your painting projects like a pro

Since I began Home Glow Design, I’ve counseled a number of people who either just bought a house or were in the process of building and called me after they got into color trouble.

They’d been trying to go it alone, figuring “paint is paint” and not wanting to spend the money getting guidance. Unfortunately, after they moved into the space, a few things happened. They realized that the gorgeous gray family room they wanted actually looked purple.

Or green.

Or blue.

Or, for some reason, the “neutral” wall color they chose to go with the newly installed “neutral” carpet inexplicably clashed.

Or the white color that supposedly so many decorators recommended didn’t have nearly the “glow” that it does in all the pictures they found online.

Color Can Be Complicated

What went wrong? It could be any of a number of reasons:

Lighting. This is a biggie. How much natural light does the room get? Does your room face north? Northern light is blue in color and will give a room a cooler feel. East- and west-facing windows give either warm or cool light depending upon whether it is morning or evening in the room. Southern exposure will give you the truest color read at all times of day. Furthermore, you need to think about what’s outside your windows. A hill? Tons of green? A blue ocean (don’t we all wish)? A covered porch? All of these scenarios will color the light that is coming through your windows. What about non-natural lighting sources? Are they incandescent or fluorescent. Are there tons of lights, or way too few? These all impact color. Never choose colors at night lit by indoor light sources only. You must look at them during the day in natural light as well.

Context/Reflectivity. What is surrounding your color choice? It all affects your perception of color. What is your trim color? Dark trim will make a wall color appear lighter and lighter trim will make it appear darker. The same goes for your behemoth dark brown sofa or your blue-gray carpet. Shiny surfaces like hardwood floors and countertops reflect themselves onto the walls as well.

Sheen. Different sheens (flat, eggshell, satin, semigloss and so on) all reflect light differently and therefore impact our perception of color. The greater the sheen, the lighter a color looks — and vice versa.

Trusting the internet. Folks, pictures you see in magazines and the internet have been edited big time. The color in the photo may look nothing at all as it does in real life. Editing may have been done for lighting and color correction purposes, or just because the editorial team likes the edited color better. Moreover, the internet has no idea of the context in which you will be painting.

Undertones and tint formulation. This is the biggest reason of all. Every architectural paint company has its own tinting system, but they usually use around 12 different tints to make all of the colors in their fan decks. Those tints are what determine your color undertones and how they will play with all of the above factors. Misidentify a color’s undertones — or don’t do it at all — and you could be in for a mess. Get the undertone right, and you’re on your way to a lovely, well-coordinated interior.

Bases and Tints and Undertones, Oh My!

In grade-school art class, most of us were taught that blues, greens and purples are cool colors and yellows, oranges and reds are warm. In architectural color, there are warm and cool renditions (or “temperatures”) of every color in the rainbow.

Why? Most paint companies use three different color bases and 10 to 16 tints in their color systems. The tints are usually separated into clear tints, natural tints and achromatics. Warm colors have natural tints added during formulation, while cool colors utilize mostly clear tints. Color temperature must be kept consistent in a room if you don’t want a messy warm/cool clash.

In addition to temperature, every color has one of four undertones: red, yellow, blue or green. The rooms that are most harmonious keep undertones consistent. But what if your undertones are already mixed?

Achromatics can be composed of up to 12 tints and are often full-spectrum. Described as “muddy,” they can act as chameleons, deriving their colors from what surrounds them. This characteristic makes them a wonderful choice for easing transitions between disparate colors in carpet, trim, wood cabinets, etc.

Personally, I find that I — and most people for that matter — prefer warm versions of colors and feel that they are most inviting, at least when you’re in a home environment. If I go to a spa, then I can take a cool gray for an hour or two, but I don’t really want to do my cooking in a kitchen that feels like an ice box. But that’s purely personal preference.

My color scheme is already a mess. How can I fix it?

Here are some tips for making sure your paint colors work, whether you’re painting for the first time or trying to fix your goof-up.

Don’t compare colors side by side. They influence your perception of each. Frankly, who cares if a certain gray looks green when next to a gray that has a blue undertone? What matters is that it looks right in your room.

Don’t put white poster board behind your sample to “try to get a better idea of true color.” It will actually make your color look darker than it is.

Never paint your samples directly on the wall. Come on, lazybones! Take the extra time to get some white poster or foam board. Paint two coats!

Try your samples behind your soft furnishings — the sofa, drapes, etc. — to see if the undertones play together nicely.

Don’t hang your samples in the middle of the wall. To cut down on competition from the existing color, hang them next to your trim in corners (don’t forget in the corner down by the floor to make sure that they go with your floor’s undertones), doorways, etc., and in different areas of the room and see how the light changes them during the day.

Lastly, realize that every paint color is going to change throughout the day — but so will the color of everything else in the room. You just have to make sure that they all change together nicely!

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