How to choose great home colo(u)rs

By Caitlin Kelly

Few challenges can feel as daunting — and turn out so horribly — as choosing paint colors for your home. Even selecting a white (creamy? icy? blue undertones?) can be tougher then you think.


People also forget, or don’t realize, a few basics when choosing colors:


What color is the existing floor? If wood, it is pale, orange-y, dark? White tile? Your permanent flooring, unless you plan to change it or renovate, adds a huge chunk of color to your room. Will it go beautifully, or badly, with whatever you put on the walls and baseboards (what Britons call skirting boards)?

What direction(s) does the room face? A north-facing room will have a different kind of light than one facing south.

What views does the room have? If it overlooks leafy green trees, (or a red brick wall), do you really want purple? Don’t forget, each color you choose should relate well to all the colors around and near it, (which is why a huge black sofa doesn’t help much.)

How much division does your space have between rooms? i.e. if it’s mostly open plan with each color immediately adjacent to one another, a stark contrast will look odd and unattractive. The eye should travel easily from one space to the next without jarring interruptions.

— Who’s mostly going to be using that room? A young child? An older person? A teenager? What do they love most?

How do you want to feel in that room? Calm? Energized? Soothed? Color powerfully affects our mood.

Matte finish, semi-gloss, gloss, Venetian plaster finish, faux finish?

What colors are your existing furniture, rugs, curtains and other major accessories?

What color scheme? Our living room is a classic pairing of opposite colors on the color wheel (red and green) — but a soft muted red and a pale yellow-green, not the dark/harsh Christmas combo that mix usually brings to mind.

Here’s a super-helpful explanation of various color schemes and the differences between shade, tone and hue.

House Beautiful magazine also publishes, every month, great colors designers select as some of their favorites.

The colors in our apartment are all from a British company in Dorset, Farrow & Ball, who add to their stunning range every year, currently with 132 colors. They also offer their discontinued colors, (like the Gervase Yellow on our living room and hallway walls.)

I visited their paint and wallpaper factory last July, a 2.5 hour train ride and 30 minute cab ride from London. I met their production director and their head of color consulting, Charlie (Charlotte) Cosby, both of whom were warm and welcoming and took me through their facility.

What I like about F & B colors — apart from their great names, like Elephant’s Breath, Clunch and Dead Salmon — is their subtlety and depth. My husband, who’s done all the painting, loves the paint’s texture, which he compares to melted ice cream.

Gervase Yellow is warm but gentle, and goes very well with our mid-brown wooden floor, wooden furniture and mixed art; that room’s colors include sage green (sofa), deep burgundy (rug) and these striped curtains.



Our bathroom walls are Hay (I think!), a deep mustard; I love their acid-bright Yellowcake and Babouche, (the color of fresh egg yolk), one of the best yellows anywhere.

Our bedroom is (I think!) Hardwick White (might be Skimming Stone), the warm soft gray of cigarette ash.

Our wooden kitchen cabinetry and the drawers shown below are in French Grey with Clunch (a neutral gray-white) on the walls.




The sitting room is Peignoir, a very pale lavender, which picks up a color in the existing curtains and is subtle but warm. It doesn’t so much read purple as…almost a pale gray; it also works really well near Gervase Yellow because purple and yellow are opposites (again!) on the color wheel and because they’re very similar in value, (i.e. there’s no huge contrast between a light color and a darker one.)






Gervase yellow (in shadow) meets Peignoir (in light)

Here are some more, quite technical explanations of color theory.

If you read interior design magazines, you’ll see, lately, a lot of rooms in two of F & B’s saturated and dramatic deep blues, Hague Blue and Stiffkey — and their pale, gorgeous, ethereal blue of Borrowed Light.

The trick, of course, is to paint a big enough sample before painting a whole room; get a piece of foamcore or stiff cardboard as large as you can — and sit with the color for a day or two to see it in daylight, candle-light, whatever illumination that room will be using. (Every light source adds its own color as well, with incandescent light being warmer than halogen or fluorescent.)



29 thoughts on “How to choose great home colo(u)rs

  1. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of home decorating. I’ve always been a minimalist and I prefer a neutral colour (colour 🙂 ) palette. I avoid prints and especially wallpaper unless it’s plain. I admire those who can handle prints and colours and make them work, like you. 🙂 I’m not good at that.

    1. It also REALLY helps to study (even just for fun) interior design magazines, which I have stacked in piles all over our small apartment — especially British ones, whose homes always blend a mix of styles well. I get a lot of good ideas from the images, no matter how expensive or opulent the home.

      Worth a try — many of these image on-line as I know you won’t have a news-stand with these nearby! Also (maybe not where you are now) libraries often have gorgeous design/coffee table books.

      Apartment Therapy is a fun and useful site.

  2. Jan Jasper

    Thanks for this lovely post! And thanks for sharing your Farrow & Ball color choices. I look forward to exploring the links about color later. We recently painted the living room, using Farrow & Ball White Tie for walls, and their Pointing for the ceiling. We first prepared the walls with Farrow & Ball primer – I noticed that, compared to other primers, the F & B primer was almost creamy during application, and when dried it had an almost chalky surface. We follow the standard advice to paint some large placards in several of the colors that we were considering, and we even primed those placards before applying the color. I’m so glad we did these test placards – after viewing them over a period of a week or two, taped up to the wall, we decided against what we initially thought was our favorite white, once we saw how it looked in different light. Anyhow the result is beautiful, and well worth the cost of the paint.

    1. So glad it all worked out!

      I have made several cringe-making color choices through the years, so it’s easy enough to do! It makes such a difference, as you saw, to really test it out and look at it over time and in different light.

      I do love that paint texture! It as an unreasonably nerdy thrill to actually watch the paint being made and too see some of the ingredients and how they are mixed. It really helped me better understand the final product.

      The wallpaper production line, though, was my favorite!

      1. Jan Jasper

        Caitlin, I so envy that trip you made to the F & B factory. Seeing their paint and wallpaper being produced must have been wonderful. BTW, I completely agree with you that adjacent rooms must be in colors that get along with each other. If you are standing in the hallway and can see into 2 bedrooms, the study, and you also get a glimpse of the stairwall going up – all those colors have to play nice together. Otherwise, it’s exhausting to the eye. I love color and I used to paint each room in a strong color – but the awful cacophony that resulted taught me a good lesson.

      2. Yes, I learned that lesson as well.

        One great trick is to have colors repeated room to room so there is visual coherence — it doesn’t have to be the wall color (but floor helps) but also curtains, art, etc.

        I think home should be a place of respite and comfort. I don’t think it has to be beige and white but really intense/saturated colors everywhere are tiring.

        I really pay attention to the use of color in public spaces like hotels, stores and restaurants, where we come and go…not live with daily.

      3. Jan Jasper

        Yes to “connecting” adjacent rooms by touches of color! The upholstered armchair in my living room echoes the paint color of the dining room walls, so when you look out from the living room into the dining room, you see two very similar shades of green, in the 2 different rooms – they appear to be side-by-side. (And for the record, I don’t like white and I can’t stand beige.)

  3. i love your choices and this is all so good to know. so many things i’ve never considered, with mixed results of course. i have tended to pick based on impulse and paint chips and explains a lot.

    1. Noooooo!

      It really does take discipline and planning — and I think everyone makes a few mistakes along the way.

      I think they key is to be ruthless when looking at what you own in that room (and what you will keep and toss.) Our bedroom was initially a strong blue (like a Geek taverna, and I loved it for years. Then a soft robin’s egg blue. Then a soft Granny Smith apple green.

      But now the very soft gray walls pick up colors in the art and a painted piece of furniture and the silver-plated bedside lamp bases. I’m enjoying it and how it allows everything else in the room to take visual precedence.

      Interior design, done well, is not easy! I learned a lot in design school and it was very humbling to see how much technical knowledge and study makes the best rooms come to life.

      1. It can feel overwhelming, for sure.

        Maybe check out a book from the library? There are some excellent ones that offer great rooms where you can see how the colors relate to one another. I think it’s actually quite difficult! I’ve changed the colors in my apartment (albeit over 29 years) at least 3 times per space, and at least 2 or 3 of them were pretty bad errors.

  4. Jan Jasper

    In a book about decorating, years ago , I read this excellent advice – look at everything you plan on putting in the room – carpet, upholstered furniture, curtains, framed artwork , decorative items etc – and pick a fairly unobtrusive paint color for the walls that will go with all of them. Having a wall color like a very soft grey provides an excellent background for all kinds of artwork, curtains, and various other decorative touches

    1. Yes to this. The challenge then is which color — and being bold enough to choose a color that is not necessarily a neutral. Sometimes a rich red or soft yellow can be much more beautiful.

  5. Jan Jasper

    I agree that a color that goes with everything you plan to put into the room does _not_ have to be neutral in the sense of white, beige, or grey. One needs a color that makes a good background for everything in the room, and doesn’t shout “look at me.” Not necessarily a neutral the way most people think of the word neutral

  6. “Few challenges can feel as daunting — and turn out so horribly — as choosing paint colors for your home.” YES. I live in a rented “temporary” home (3 years into that arrangement, I question just how temporary) and our inherited paint colours have always been a challenge for me. Due to the temporary-ness (at least theoretically), I have always talked myself out of changing them / inquiring whether my landlady would do so…). Let’s just say, it’s a lot of deep colours and special finishes … the walls make a statement, and it’s difficult to evolve the style of the rooms with furniture, other colour accents, etc., when the walls say so much. This post is inspiring fuel for my daydreaming about the day I will move into my own place and paint my walls!! They will be neutral-ish – with furniture / accents / artwork / window coverings that I can play with – with minimal investment – over time. I can’t wait 🙂

    1. Oh, dear…that sounds…exhausting.

      I am (no surprise) very sensitive to my environment, so that would be very unpleasant.

      You should definitely speak to your landlady. Those choices seem unfair to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s