Stop making paint mistakes. How to pick the right paint colors.

Does picking the right paint color seem hard?  Have you ever picked out a paint, put it on the wall and then thought…oh no…that isn’t the way I expected that paint to look at all?  In fact, it’s even happened to me. 

My own paint mistake

Years ago when my husband, Brad, and I were living in an adorable little condo in Arlington, VA we painted the walls this beautiful, earthy sage green (this was in the early 2000s so those earth tones were big back then).  I absolutely loved the color and we got tons of compliments on it.   When we bought our first house out in the suburbs I wanted to use that same green paint in our formal living room.  But this time it was a total PAINT FAIL.  It looked horrible.  What happened?  How could a paint I loved in one home look absolutely horrible in another?  

In all honesty I painted that room five times before I got it right.  (Yes, you read that right-five times).  I made a big mistake and I hope you’re not making the same one.

The biggest mistake homeowners make when picking paint colors

Ignoring or not understanding how light influences color is the big mistake I want you to avoid.  This was actually the problem I had with my green paint.  I ignored how the light in the new house was different from the condo.  And that light totally changed the way the paint color looked.  Rookie mistake. 

Lighting can include the lightbulbs you use as well as the natural light that enters your house.  Also, the direction your home or room faces should be considered when choosing paint colors.  For example-northern facing rooms tend to be darker with less natural light so warm paint colors might work well.  Southern facing spaces have constant light all day so you might prefer softer paint colors so the walls aren’t too intense.  Seasons can also impact the way color looks in your home because summer has more warm wavelengths while winter and cloudy days have less.  Basically, I hope you get the point that lighting is really important.  

If you go to Home Depot, your local paint store or your friend’s house and see a paint color you like then please trust me when I say that you cannot just assume that paint color will look the same in your home.  Most often it won’t and the reason is because of the lighting.

Designer Paint Tip

Always pick out paint colors on a sunny day (or whatever is normal weather for your area).  Here in San Diego I always tell my clients we need to pick paint colors on a sunny day since we average about 266 sunny days a year.  Folks in areas of the country who have more cloudy days might want to make sure their paint colors look good on cloudy days. 

Understanding undertones

Whenever a color is made with two or more colors there will be what’s called a mass tone and an undertone.  The mass tone is the main color we see-the dominant color.  The undertone is the secondary color and it’s often extremely subtle and you may not even realize it’s there.  But, that undertone can cause a BIG problem when you’re picking paint.  

Almost all paints have undertones that impact the color and I want to make sure you know what that undertone is.  Often you can’t figure out the undertone when you see the color by itself.  But when you compare it with another color the undertone is more obvious.  

Compare Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray and Repose Gray-Nestorations
Compare Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray and Repose Gray-Nestorations

For example let’s look at two very popular Sherwin Williams greige paint colors: Agreeable Gray and Repose Gray.  Looking at them by themselves they each look like a similar gray.  But when we put them side by side we can really see the difference between them.  While both colors are warm grays, Agreeable gray (on the right) has more brown undertones that give it a warmer feel.   

How to figure out paint undertones

An easy trick to figure out the undertone of a paint swatch is to look at the darkest color on a paint color strip.  Yep…it’s that easy.  The darkest color on a paint strip will tell you the undertone.

How to find the undertone when choosing paint colors for your home

Comparing the two paint strips you can see that the darkest colors are different.  On the right side is the Agreeable Gray strip which definitely has a dark chocolate brown.  While the darkest color on the Repose swatch is a brownish/black with just a smidge of purple undertones.  It’s very subtle but it’s there.  If you wanted a warmer gray then Agreeable Gray might be a better choice for you.  But, then again you still need to see how it looks in your home’s light.  

Tips to pick the right paint color
every time

Now that you know how lighting and undertones affect color let’s talk about some practical tips to actually help you pick the right color the first time.

  1. Figure out the undertone of the paint by looking at the darkest color on the paint strip.  It’ll help rule out some colors that you won’t like later.  Let’s say you dislike red, then you won’t want a beige paint with red undertones.  
  2. Get a sample size of paint to actually paint on the wall.  That tiny paint chip just won’t do.  Make sure to put the paint on several walls as each wall gets a different amount of light.
  3. Look at the paint for at least 24 hours.  You need to see it in all lights-morning, day and evening.  Make sure you like the color in the different lights.

If painting anything on your walls isn’t your jam then you can go with peel and stick samples.  Sherwin Williams offers their own paintable peel and stick samples.  If you don’t want to even think about opening a jar of paint there are peel and stick paint samples from a company called Samplize.  It’s a pretty cool concept and each 12 x 12 sample is $5.95.  They offer samples from Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore and Farrow and Ball.   If I end up helping you pick out colors I can actually get 8 x 11 paint samples from Sherwin Williams or 8 x 9 samples from Benjamin Moore.  Those large sizes really make a difference.

How to pick the right paint color the first time. Don't make these common paint mistakes.

Final thoughts...

Luckily my days of picking the wrong paint colors are behind me and my hope is that they are for you, too.   As you know, picking paint from a tiny paint chip is not easy, but with a few steps I know you can get it right the first time.  You definitely don’t want to bring the painter back to repaint your home.  Nobody wants that-not even the painter.  

If you think you could use some extra help picking paint, I’d love to help you.  With Full-Service design we can choose paints for your home.  Or if you just need paint colors then simply reach out to me on my contact page to get on my calendar.  

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Sally Soricelli