Here’s the Trick to Picking the Very Best Paint Color For Your Walls

updated May 3, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Sandra Rojo)

I used to live dangerously, buying paint willy nilly without ever trying it out on the walls first. Who needs samples anyway? Be bold, be daring, and trust your instinct, right?! Once, I even made a choice just by looking online and letting the painter pick it up at the store.

Surprise! I made some regrettable choices. In fact, it’s kind of amazing how many times I was happy with my decision without trying out paint first. But how many ways did I find paint disappointment? Let’s count them. There was the pale, sunny yellow for a kitchen that turned out more like stoplight yellow. The vibrant orange (I was going for a particular look in an attic apartment) that was the right color—but the wrong finish. The neutral greige in a dining room that just didn’t do it for me. A red and gold color combo hastily chosen from Home Depot’s swatchesread more ketchup and mustard. These all had to be repainted. I’m still living with the wrong shade of too-cool gray in my hallways, because that’s a lot of wall to redo.

So, when starting a kitchen and bath renovation this summer, I actually dedicated some time and money to choosing the right colors. I grilled several experts to help me make the right decision, and guess what?! I love every color I chose, like LOVE them. Here’s what I learned:

Be ready to change your mind

It’s fine to do research online or in magazines; I started my selection there. But the color that looks so beautiful on your phone, or on that page, may look nothing like that when you get to the paint store. I’ve had my heart set on a color only to throw it out the door when I see the swatch. However, a nearby color, either up or down a shade on the swatch, or one or two swatches over, has sometimes turned out to be The One.

Test the paint on all four walls

Light plays a huge role in how a paint reads. Laura McGarity, a designer I worked with on the renovations (also money well spent), recommended I try out the samples on all four walls of each room. The difference in color from one side of the room to another was striking. Depending on where your light sources are, and which direction the windows face, the paint can be dramatically different. Just because you like it on one wall doesn’t mean it will play well elsewhere.

Check the color throughout the day

McGarity also suggested I look at the paint in morning, afternoon, and evening light, as well as after dark with the lights on. Again, there’s a huge difference. The right paint will be just as beautiful as it transforms throughout the day. In the kitchen I ended up choosing Benjamin Moore Soot, and the painter remarked every day on the ever-changing color: It was soft black in the morning, inky blue in the afternoon, and deep gray in the evening—but always stunning.

Test it like you’ll paint it

I picked up a great tip at my wonderful local paint store. Instead of using a cheap brush for the test, they said you should apply it the same way that you’d paint for real, i.e. a roller. They sell the most amazingly convenient tiny roller kits (also available in bulk from Amazon) for just this purpose. Wrap the kit in plastic and stash it in the fridge between coats, they advised. It worked perfectly—the roller didn’t dry out between coats.

Paint it like it’s free

The paint pros at the shop also suggested I try out the paint in big swathes—none of that two- or three-inch square stuff. It was true—it’s hard to gauge how you feel about a color from a tiny spot on a big wall. And you won’t get a true read from one coat so do at least two, if not three, for a more accurate picture. Basically, paint it like it’s free!

New walls? Prime it first

I almost missed out on the most perfectly beautiful green for the bathroom because the color I loved on the swatch—Benjamin Moore Chrome Green—went on like some wild shade you’d find in a kid’s Play-Doh set. Luckily I mentioned this to the painter, who gave me some good news. The “purple board” in the bathroom (a special moisture resistant sheetrock) soaks up paint like crazy, so I wouldn’t get an accurate read after even a couple of coats. In order to see its true colors, seal the wall with primer first. And sure enough, the hideous, practically neon green hue, once applied over primer, dried to the exact shade I was hoping for.

It is just paint

Even after all that, you still might make the wrong call. We’ve all been there. The good news is it’s not permanent. Nobody likes to admit they’re wrong, but I’ve been there, trust me, and it’s better to acknowledge it sooner than later. If you’re going to spend the time and money to change it, there’s no point in prolonging your dismay—just do it right away.