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“Human beings, by nature, love color,” says designer Devon Tobin, owner of Duet Design Group. “I don’t buy it when people tell me they don’t like color. I think they’re just scared of implementing it incorrectly at home.”
Sound familiar? Maybe you tend to play it safe because it’s easier to cling to neutral greige walls than to try out the soft sage green or sophisticated citron your heart desires. Or perhaps you’ve tried to craft a more interesting palette only to find the results not quite right.
But when the hues are spot on in a space, our bodies and minds can have a visceral, feel-good response. In this mini guide, Tobin; designer Beth Armijo, owner of Armijo Design Group; and color consultant Michelle Marceny, owner of the Color Concierge; reveal dozens of ideas for dialing in your home’s paint palette and setting the right mood in every room.
Find Your Match
With approximately one billion available paint colors, how do you find the shade that looks right in your unique space? Start here:
Narrow it down. If you’re overwhelmed by the number of choices, pick samples from paint manufacturers’ historical collections, which offer a solid edit of colors, Armijo says. “You really can’t go wrong,” she promises.
Consider undertones. “Grays go green. A lot of creams go pink,” Tobin says. “It can be hard to tell how a color is going to appear just by looking at a deck [of paint swatches].” So, use the tip she gives junior designers at her firm: Once you’ve chosen a color you like, also get samples that are one shade lighter and one shade darker. “More often than not, one of those options achieves the look you thought you’d get from the original,” she says.
Test, test, test. Paint a large sample—at least 11 by 17 inches—on a white poster board and hang it on the wall of the room you’re painting. “It’s key to see the color surrounded by white, not by the color that’s already on the wall,” Marceny says, adding that you need to see the hue in the space because the color changes based on the light. (For example, if you have a north-facing window, the light coming in will have a subtle blue cast.)
Live with it. Don’t decide on your color in the first five minutes. Look at the samples throughout the day, as the light shifts and after the sun sets. Color is dynamic, so give yourself time to watch its many moods.
What’s Your Favorite Color?
It’s likely been a few decades since someone asked you that hard-hitting question. If it’s difficult for you to identify the hues you love, start by opening your closet and surveying your wardrobe. “I do this all the time with my clients,” Tobin says. “The colors you wear tend to be the ones you’re willing to implement at home.”
No Lifelong Commitments
We have good and bad news: The color palette that brings you joy today will eventually need a redo. “I guarantee that you will outgrow your favorite color,” Tobin says. “Every 10 years or so, your perspective shifts. Your palette will change.” She adds: “What if we thought of color as liberating and freeing? Try something a little outside of your norm. Get help if you need it. When we live with palettes that make us happy today—even if they change in a decade— we get a lot of satisfaction for a relatively small investment.”
For Gathering Spaces
Neutrals tend to work best in these high-traffic spaces—but you might want to expand your definition of neutral beyond warm whites, grays, and greiges. “For me, a neutral is a color you see in the landscape, in the tones of the earth,” Armijo says. “When you look outside, you see browns and grays, but you also see muted greens and blues. Those subtler tones of color are absolutely neutrals that work in living spaces.”
Colors that reflect light—soft (but not pastel) pinks and subtle, neutral golds, for example—are excellent choices for dining rooms because they complement most every skin tone (and the lovelier you feel, the longer you’ll linger at the table, right?). Marceny notes that many of her clients want dark dining rooms these days (read: navy blues, dark greens, and rich rusts), which is a good choice if a space has ample natural light (generally, these will be south- or east-facing rooms). Otherwise, the room can feel oppressive and cave-like.
For Productive Spaces
When you’re trying to plow through a busy workday, do you find color stimulating in a good way or downright distracting? The decision may depend on what type of work you do, our experts say. “If you’re on Zoom all day long, I like a mid-tone blue, something like Sherwin-Williams’ Granite Peak or Benjamin Moore’s Britannia Blue; they make just about everybody look good,” Marceny suggests. “If you’re on the computer all day—programming or coding, for example—you might feel best with a dark, subdued color because it helps your eye rest.”
Tobin and Marceny agree: Dark kitchens can dampen the mood. “We generally start by picking a white or light neutral for the common areas, always starting with the kitchen, and then add [more] color to the rooms that are offshoots,” Marceny says. Because the kitchen is a hardworking space, Tobin likes the room to feel fresh with layered neutrals. “You want to see things as they really are here and not be distracted by a lot of color,” she adds.
But if color is your cup of tea in the kitchen, you might choose a single hue in a variety of shades (Armijo recommends using a more saturated tone sparingly and muted tones more liberally) to give the room depth without overdoing it.
For Cozy Spaces
Den & Library
If you have no fear (or are trying to be fearless with color), these rooms are excellent places to try deep, saturated hues, especially greens and blues. (Or both! “What is green without blue?” Armijo asks. “It’s such a nice marriage.”) The experts agree that darker shades can promote a sense of calm coziness that makes these ancillary spaces feel distinctive. Just keep in mind that you’ll need plenty of light, real or artificial, to keep the room from feeling too dim.
“If I’m looking to create serenity and peace, I lean toward whites and creams, not saturated tones,” Tobin says. “The lighter and brighter colors get, the more exuberance comes out in you.” Marceny agrees and looks to light greiges—such as Benjamin Moore’s cult favorite Classic Gray and Sherwin-Williams’ Gossamer Veil—to evoke calm. Against such a neutral backdrop, you can easily add in your favorite accent hues. (Tobin mentions pinks, oranges, and greens for a spark of fun that still allows the space to feel fresh and serene.) Paint the ceiling or one wall in a more vibrant hue—a popular trick that’s both cost-effective and high impact.