Why Paint Color Matching Doesn’t Always Work

updated Sep 15, 2022
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(Image credit: Liz Calka)

Say you are absolutely smitten with a paint color, and it would be the most perfect thing ever on your walls. There’s just one teeny problem. You can’t get your hands on that particular paint brand (or can’t bring yourself to drop a hundred bucks on a gallon). I’ve been there, and unfortunately, paint matching services don’t always work, but they can get pretty close.

If you’ve ever crushed on, say, a Farrow & Ball paint—especially if you live in many parts of the country where it’s not available for sale—you know this feeling all too well.

My paint heartthrob was Farrow & Ball Railings, an elegant, rich, moody black/blue/gray that I wanted desperately for my kitchen renovation. Desperately enough to be willing to drive to the nearest city I could buy it: Chicago—five hours away. Then the reality of the renovation costs hit, and $110 a gallon paint became an LOL. So I decided to color match it instead.

Yep, through the miracle of science, paint shops can identify the particular color make-up of your favorite, and it’s possible to get very close with their own formulation. You can bring in a paint chip for them to scan, or many times, just tell them the manufacturer and color name, and they’ll look it up. Does it work?

I’m here to share my experience and some intel from experts. Louisville, Kentucky interior designer Laura McGarity consulted with me throughout our kitchen reno, and Benjamin Moore Color & Design Expert Hannah Yeo offered their professional advice.

In Search of the One Perfect Color

I headed to my local paint shop and told them I wanted Railings. Sure enough, they mixed up a custom sample of their Benjamin Moore paint. (Something to note: Paint shops might not do custom samples in a small size. I had to buy a full quart at my local place.) I also got samples of the color that design blogger Laurel Bern said was Benjamin Moore’s closest stock match, Soot, plus Raccoon Fur for good measure.

After testing the colors and consulting with McGarity, the winner was clear, and it wasn’t the Farrow & Ball match. Did it look like the paint chip? It was really close. And honestly, if I’d gone that route, I think it would have been just fine.

As it turned out, I just liked the way Soot looked on my walls throughout the day better. A paint chip, or a paint color online or in a magazine, is only one color.

But when you watch it transform with morning, afternoon, and evening light (not to mention artificial light) it comes to life in a million ways. It just so happened that I preferred the variations in the standard color to their match.

But that may not be true for you. Or maybe you’ve seen a wall painted with the perfect mystery color. What do you need to know about paint matching?

How does it work?

Well, there’s a visual method, Yeo said (a.k.a. eyeballing it). Then there’s scientific. “If you go to local Benjamin Moore store, they have a spectrophotometer, the same thing we use in our labs,” she said.

“It shoots light at an angle, and they view [the paint chip] and get a true read. From there, they look at the formulation of the color and try to match it to either the closest Benjamin Moore color or do a custom color.” (I didn’t know they could tell you their closest match; that could have saved a lot of Googling!)

Do Paint Matching Services Work?

Well, it’s getting harder, according to both Yeo and McGarity. Manufacturers are in a race to make their offerings non-matchable, McGarity said.

That approach keeps consumers from switching brands—and keeps painting contractors from switching as well, she said. And that can be a big deal since contractors are more likely to swap out paint brands than any other material she specifies for a client.

It’s All in the Science

In the case of my Farrow & Ball dream paint, “They have a very specific proprietary formula,” McGarity said. Even if the color looks the same, “It has a different chemical makeup—it’s a different viscosity, the polymers change how it adheres to the wall, so it’s going to go onto the wall different.”

As a result, not only is the texture different, but the way the light reflects, and everything around it for that matter, reacts differently, she said. “It is actually a different product, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult to match.”

Yeo confirmed that their line is equally difficult for competitors to copy. “Benjamin Moore colors, first of all cannot be matched to any competitive colors,” she said. Using their own machines, not the equipment she said other manufacturers use, they’re able to create their own formulas and colors that other paints can’t match. (I’d be willing to bet if I called every higher-end manufacturer, they’d tell me they can’t be copied either.)

But can they match other paints? “They can,” Yeo said, “but we can’t 100 percent guarantee the color match.”

Does it Actually Matter?

“Some of these new proprietary colors cannot be recreated because they don’t have the same formula,” McGarity said. “They try … they get really, really close. In many instances, it won’t matter, but in some instances, it will.”

Maybe the match will look exactly like the other paint. But maybe it’s off, even just at a certain time of day—then everything you based on that wall color is affected, and everything is off.

The real question is, do you get a color that looks like what you wanted, regardless of the manufacturer? “Color is so subjective,” Yeo said, and “at the end of the day, people should be happy… even if you start with color matching and it guided you [to the color you end up choosing].” I wouldn’t have found Soot if I hadn’t started with Railings, so my color match experiment was totally worth it.

Should You Do it? The Bad News.

There are some things to keep in mind, McGarity said. First, if you don’t like it, “you cannot return custom colors.” So a nice chunk of change is gone if you change your mind. (She noted that there’s a thriving market for offloading custom paints on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, so maybe it’s not a total loss.)

If it does work and you love it, you may run into trouble a couple of years down the road if you have to do a touch-up. “Sometimes you can come back, and they make the custom color again, and it matches pretty well,” she said. “But the same thing happens with dye lots in carpet and upholstery—even if they use the same formula, it might not match.” Then you’re back to square one.

But if You Must Use a Paint Matching Service…

Sometimes you’re just determined to match a color. Don’t feel bad about taking a competitor’s swatch into the store, McGarity said. “Consumers think they have to be sneaky, they act subversive about it,” she said, “but it’s super okay. Go around to paint stores and collect swatches and narrow it down.”

And if there is no swatch? I love our house’s red living room walls and want to repaint them the same thing when we get around to repairing the cracks in the plaster. Where do you start? Take a chunk out of the wall? That can, in fact, work says McGarity.

Match With a Photo or App

“I’ve had better success taking pictures and printing a couple of copies rather than taking a physical piece of something. As phone technology has improved, that process is getting easier.”

You can also use an app. Yeo said that Benjamin Moore’s Color Capture will tell you their closest match, and other manufacturers also offer color tools.

Yeo cautioned if you use your phone camera, “keep in mind your phone wasn’t invented to calculate color. Anything in the visual space can be altered by the light, the time of day. It’s definitely a good place to start but always do a visual check after.”

And if you’re getting really advanced and trying to match a material like fabric? “It’s not going to be the same every time,” she said. “And different materials can have different sheens.”

Go the Oldschool Route: Use A Swatch Deck

Both experts agreed: after starting with a digital tool, move on to using your own eyes. “A swatch deck is really gonna get you pretty close,” McGarity said. “If you’re in a home with existing paint, you may grab twenty different swatches and see how close you can get with that; you might get pretty darn close.”

Just remember. Whatever you choose, test it, test it, test it. And if you don’t like it on half a wall, you’re not going to like it better in the whole room, McGarity said. Cut your losses and start over.

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