3 secrets to the perfect paint color

There’s nothing like a fresh coat of paint to breathe new life into a space. But so often, the paint colors you love in magazines, other people’s houses, on Pinterest, or at the hardware store just don’t look right once you bring them into your home. The secret to choosing the perfect paint color, it turns out, is lighting! The way we perceive a color varies based on two things: the light that a surface absorbs, and how the light source works. Natural sunlight changes throughout the day, and artificial light will look different depending on the bulbs you buy. Luckily, there are secrets to figuring out how the light will affect the paint colors you choose before you invest in enough paint for the entire house.

1. Follow The Sun

The amount and angle of the sunlight coming in through your windows can have a dramatic affect on the appearance of your paint, and it’s important to keep a few things in mind when choosing paint colors. Rooms that face north will have cooler, more blueish light which looks best shining on bold colors. Lighter paint colors tend to fade away in northern facing rooms, so if you are looking for a place to embrace a lot of color, these rooms are the place to do it. Southern facing windows will allow nearly any color to look its best, whether warm or cool. Dark shades will look brighter and lighter ones will shine as well. It’s hard to go wrong here! Rooms that face east will get warm, yellow-tinted light in the morning and a cooler tint in the evening, making them ideally suited for warm shades with red, orange, and yellow tints. Western-facing rooms get beautiful even sunlight but are dimmer and more shadowy in the morning, causing colors to look duller than they do in other places.

2. The Secret Is In The Bulb

Different types of light bulbs can dramatically alter the appearance of a paint color, so if you hate the shade you chose once it’s on the wall, don’t despair! It might be a simple fix to try another type of bulb and see if that helps matters. Incandescent bulbs put out a warm, yellow light that makes warm shades like yellow, red, and orange seem brighter and turns down the volume on blues and greens. Fluorescent tube lights put off a flat, cool light that makes blues and greens pop, but also tend to have a less-than-flattering effect on skin tones, making them poorly suited to bathrooms and living spaces in general. These are most popular in offices and industrial spaces, which is why you might find you look kind of rough in fitting rooms mirrors at department stores. Compact fluorescents are made in various styles to put out either bluish white, neutral, or warm white light, while LEDs tend to emit a blueish cool light, unless the packaging specifies that they are “warm white” LED. Halogen bulbs most closely resemble natural sunlight, glowing with a pure white light that makes all colors look brighter and softening the transition from natural light to artificial light as the sun goes down.

3. Test It Out (And Don’t Rely On Swatches Alone)

Now that you understand the basics of how light affects paint appearance, here’s how to make that information work for you. First and foremost, it’s crucial that you paint samples and evaluate them in various lighting throughout the day to see how they will change. Ideally, you want to paint a primed piece of drywall so that it looks the most like your actual wall, and them move that sample around the house as the light changes. If that isn’t feasible, a large piece of cardboard is ok too, although it won’t absorb paint quite the same as your walls. Do at least two coats, and make sure you do a big enough swatch that you can really get a feel for the color. A 3” square swatch or tiny paint chip from the store isn’t going to tell you much about how that color will look when it’s covering the entire room. Opt for at least one foot square of your top two or three colors to get a more realistic idea of how they will translate to the space. If possible, buy a paint color sample of the same brand and finish that you plan to use throughout the room. Some stores (looking at you, Lowes) only offer paint samples in satin finish, which isn’t all that helpful if you want to go with a flat shade or high gloss. Which brings us to the next point…

Paint sheen matters! Even if you love the paint color in one finish, it will look different depending on how shiny it is up on the wall. Glossy paints reflect more light and change more based on the lighting, while flat finishes are truer to the color of the paint and don’t vary as much as the light changes. Higher sheen paints are popular for bathrooms, kitchens, and kid’s rooms, since they are easier to clean, while many decorators prefer the look of flat finishes. Eggshell offers a nice compromise, being relatively low-maintenance but without a super shiny appearance.

Whatever you do, don’t try to make any major paint decisions based solely on those colored little paper strips from the paint store, because they are too small and don’t let you see sheen at all, so they are not a great representation of the color you are considering. Never, ever, ever paint a room without starting with a paint sample that you can evaluate in the space where you want to put it. We recommend going to the paint store and grabbing ten or so similar shades you like to bring home paint chips, and then looking at the chips in your house to choose your favorite two or three to purchase samples of. Chances are, the colors you liked best in the harsh fluorescent halls of Home Depot won’t be the ones that you prefer when you look at them in your living room. Once you’ve narrowed it down, paint large swatches of each of the top contenders and prop them up against the wall in the room you’re painting and just live with it for a few days to see how you feel about them and how they change with the light. There’s no need to rush into a paint color decision!

Finally, you’ll want to keep in mind that the color of your floors can have an impact on the appearance of your paint, especially if you are painting a light color. If you’re planning a big renovation project, choose the flooring first before picking paint, so that you know how the shades you pick will play together. It’s fine to just use samples for this decision process, so you don’t risk getting paint all over your brand new hardwoods, just use large enough samples right next to each other that you can get a reliable idea of the final effect. Of course, as we already covered, you’ll want to examine those samples together in various light before making any final decisions.