You’ve Probably Been Picking Paint Colors the Wrong Way This Whole Time

published Jul 22, 2021
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If you’ve ever decided to paint a room but then found yourself paralyzed with indecision when you got to the paint store to choose a color, you’re not alone. Selecting a paint from a paint chip is hard. “Even I can’t go stand in The Home Depot and look at the wall of paint chips and pick the right color,” says designer Rebecca West, the founder of Seriously Happy Homes in Seattle and author of the “Happy Starts At Home” book. “Color is so affected by lighting and environment that even a color expert can’t do it [there].”

That being said, the pros know tricks for zeroing in on colors that will truly make you happy, even at the paint chip phase of your journey. To narrow down the choices in the paint store, follow West’s nine tried-and-true tips for picking colors from paint chips.

Start with inspiration images — not actual colors

West says her process with clients always begins with encouraging them to collect pictures of rooms they’d like to live in. Then West suggests you analyze what you’ve chosen: How dark and moody or light and airy are the colors you’re drawn to? Don’t focus too much on particular hues at first — just notice if the walls are a quiet, neutral background or the design star in the room. “Starting with that instead of looking at the wall of paint chips will help you know what category of paint color you’re trying to find,” she says.

Credit: Andrew Bui

Look at what’s already in your room

If you’re working with existing furnishings in a given room, use them to inform your wall color choice. For a dynamic design, you might consider a color on the opposite side of the

Aim for contrast

Contrast plays a key role in every successful room design. However, contrast doesn’t always have to mean starkly different shades. If you’re leaning into a more monochromatic scheme, for example, the contrast might be in different saturations.

West notes contrast can be especially tricky to achieve in carpeted rooms specifically. “Say you have a beige color on the carpet and white trim, and then you end up picking a beige, soft yellow, or gray color for the walls: Then the whole room feels so flat,” she says. You may have to go a little darker in tone to really make the walls pop, so be mindful of that.

Choose earthy colors

“The biggest mistake people make, especially when they’re staring at a wall of paint swatches, is they end up going too clear with the color — like a kid’s crayon blue instead of something a little bit more muted and sophisticated,” says West. To understand the difference between what West calls a “clear color” and an earthy one, she suggests imagining a jar full of jelly beans versus a jar full of beautiful river rocks. “They are both full of gorgeous color, but those nature hues are going to be more timeless, long-lasting, and easy on the eyes,” she says. West is also quick to point out that it’s not that those clear colors can’t work, but you need to use them carefully (more on this just below) in your rooms. 

Be especially careful with blues and yellows

“Blue and yellow paint chips tend to trick people,” cautions West, who notes that a blue paint color that looks perfect on a chip can become surprisingly electric when painted on the wall, while yellow can look caution-tape bright.

When choosing these primaries, open yourself up to slightly muddier colors. “When you’re looking at a two-inch swatch, the color is probably going to read a little bit dirty — more brown or muted than you think you want,” she says. “But that’s a tiny swatch; it’s going to treat you better [than a clear color] once it’s on the entire wall,” she says.

Coordinate with a physical color sample

If possible, bring the items you hope to coordinate your wall color with to the paint store. You might feel silly toting a sofa cushion or quilt, but this could save you time in the long run. “When you put two colors next to each other, you can accurately match [them],” notes West. If you try to wing it or work off a photo, you can end up with a color that looks like you tried to match but failed, she cautions. 

Invest in a paint fan deck

As a professional designer, West has paint fan decks from multiple paint companies and brings them into her clients homes to find the perfect hue. She says owning even one fan deck can be a huge help and save you some back and forth from the paint store (which might help you justify the $30 price tag).

With a paint deck in hand at home, you can easily identify colors that coordinate with the existing colors in your room. If you want to explore more options, you can look at other collections or brands in the paint store with the colors you flagged in your fan deck at home. 

Take home tons of chips

If you don’t want to invest in a fan deck, don’t be shy about taking lots of paint chips, which are usually free. Because the paint store lighting is unlike what you have at home, West recommends keeping an open mind and choosing colors that are a little more nuanced and not instantly appealing. Again, it’s that whole clear versus earthy color concept. Once you’re at home, you can really narrow down to the colors that work best.

Look at color next to white

The color white can help you see another hue’s true character. “When I’m helping my clients choose a color, I will put that swatch next to a white that I might use for the trim to give them a sense of how much contrast they’re going to get,” she says, noting that this tactic often makes a color choice easier.

If you’re comparing two colors, place them both next to the same white — not each other. “You never want to compare two colors right next to each other,” she says. Your instinct will be to choose the more pure, clear color, when the muddied color might actually be a better choice.

Now that you have all of these paint color chip tips, you’re ready to go back to the store for some samples to test drive on your walls!